MELBOURNE, Australia - Elena Rybakina has done her best work in the shadows, boosting her ranking nearly 150 spots in the span of the last 12 months. The 20-year-old has tallied two WTA titles and is seeded at a Slam for the first time at the 2020 Australian Open. But anonymity is a luxury the big-hitting Russian, who plays for Kazakhstan, can no longer afford.
Rybakina credits her rocket rise to finishing school and fully dedicating herself to tennis and hiring a full-time private coach, former ATP player Stefano Vukov. Since hiring Vukov, Rybakina has won two WTA titles (Bucharest, Hobart) and qualified for her first Slam main draws at Roland Garros and the US Open.
Things came together for Rybakina last fall. Since the US Open, Rybakina has posted a 21-6 record, including a quarterfinal or better finish in her last three events of 2019. She advanced to the quarterfinals of Wuhan, the quarterfinals of Linz, and the semifinals of Luxembourg to cap off her season. After starting 2019 ranked No.191, Rybakina finished the year ranked No.37 and she's continued to build on that ranking in 2020.
WTA Insider sat down with Rybakina in Melbourne to discuss her family's difficult decision to allow her to pursue a career in pro tennis and the secret to her success over the last year.
WTA Insider: How did you first start playing tennis?
Rybakina: My dad brought me to the tennis court at six years old. Before, I was doing gymnastics and ice skating with my sister. Then because of my height they said that I cannot be a professional. The group was split. One was going professional, another just for fun.
My dad was like, okay, just try tennis because he loves tennis. He actually tried to play when he was 20. So, yes, I started to play tennis like this. He brought me to the tennis.
WTA Insider: What did you enjoy about tennis?
Rybakina: I love tennis. It was always a game for me. Even now, I don't think it's a job. It was always a game and if I cannot do something I like to improve it, to fix it. I love everything in tennis.
WTA Insider: At what point did you realize you might be good enough to become a professional tennis player?
Rybakina: Probably when I was playing junior Grand Slams and tournaments. When I was in tennis school, I didn't play so good. I was losing every time in the first and second rounds. In my group, my friends, they were always in the semis, finals.
When we started to play junior tournaments, Grade 3, 4, 5, the first few tournaments I didn't play so good. But then I was in qualies of an ITF Grade 3 and I won the tournament. After this, I felt some confidence and I started to play more tournaments and it was better and better. I finished the year at No.3.
I finished school and I had to decide if I should go to college. My dad wanted me to go to college because he was worried. He saw the results, but it was difficult for us financially. It's not easy. Like every parent, he was worried if I get injured.
I had offers to universities in America, but I didn't even think about it because I wanted to keep playing. I had like 15 offers. My dad really wanted me to go. He thought if I didn't go to university, at home I would not get the same education. Because of tennis, I could get a better education.
But he saw the results and he loves tennis, so he said ok. Then the Kazakhstan Federation made me an offer and the decision was easier. I changed my citizenship to Kazakhstan because they believed in me and they offered. I was not so good when they offered. So they believed in me and they're helping me a lot.
It's much easier for me now because I started to work with a private coach only last year, Stefano Vukov. He is always with me, we are traveling together every week. It's great because in 2018 I tried to also work with a private coach, Andrei Chesnokov. He couldn't travel with me. In 2018, I was still practicing in the group, in the tennis school with the other kids in Moscow.
Now, every week Stefano and I are working together. It's really good because we can improve at the tournaments and everything. So that's great. The results, we started when I was ranked 200 and now...very fast. So with him we did a great job. We keep working.
WTA Insider: This time last year you were ranked No.171. Now you're ranked at a career-high No.26 and you're seeded at your first Slam. Does it feel fast?
Rybakina: I mean, it's fast, of course, but I don't feel it so much because I was playing so many tournaments. I feel that I'm playing good and I feel better and better on court because I improved and I feel it, but I don't feel that it's so fast. I can realize it only when I see the number.
WTA Insider: What goes through your mind when you see the number next to your name? That you're one of the Top 30 players in the world right now?
Rybakina: I mean, that's amazing, but I didn't even think about this. For example, my coach told me after I played the final of Shenzhen and won Hobart, he said Radwanska did something similar in 2013, but she won both tournaments (Radwanska won Auckland and Sydney). He said it's not the record, but you did something good.
But I didn't think about this. So of course, it's nice to hear it and to see the result, but I didn't even think about it so much.
WTA Insider: What has been the key to your improvement over the last 12 months?
Rybakina: Last year I started to focus on tennis much more because before I was still in school. It was not easy for me because I couldn't skip school. I didn't have a coach who could travel with me.
So now I'm focusing for the last year only on tennis and I have a great coach. He's helping me a lot. We started working in February and we improved a lot of things. With his help, it's working.
WTA Insider: You mentioned not being as good as some of the other juniors when you were young. Do you remember who those other players were?
Rybakina: Some of them don't play anymore. They went to study. When you're small, it doesn't really matter, but the parents are sometimes crazy about the results when you are 12 or 14.
I was playing tennis just because my parents wanted me to do something after school. It was not like she will be professional. Then they saw the results and they saw that I want to play tennis, so why not? The Kazakhstan Federation also saw it. She can be good. Why not. So they also believed in me.
WTA Insider: Who were your tennis idols?
Rybakina: Roger Federer and still Roger Federer. I remember Justine Henin. I liked her game. I'm not playing like her because I'm being aggressive, but I liked what she was doing on court.
WTA Insider: Who are your good friends on the tour?
Rybakina: I have some good friends on tour. But the closest friends, they're not playing WTA tournaments because my ranking went up so fast.
I have a few friends here on tour and they're nice so we can spend some time together. But the top players, they don't know me, I don't know them yet.
WTA Insider: So what do you do when you're not playing tennis?
Rybakina: I love animals. I have a dog, a beagle named Mulia. I like to spend my time with friends for sure when I'm at home.
But I can't say that I have hobbies. I don't even have time for this because before I was going to school. So it was for me it was school and practice. But it wasn't so bad for me. For example, practice was not individual training. It was always in a group so it was fun.
So now if I have free time, I want to always spend the time with my friends and family because last year I was not at home for such a long time. It was always like five days, three days, and then I have to go to the tournaments. It's a big change for me because before I didn't play so many tournaments and I always had time to go home and I was practicing at home.
WTA Insider: Not many fans have seen you play many matches yet. What would you say to people to convince them to watch you play?
Rybakina: Oh, I don't know. I don't even feel that I have a lot of fans to be honest, because it was pretty fast for me. So I always tell my coach, no no, they don't know me, we can go. And he says no, you don't understand. They will know you.
I mean, I'm playing aggressive. I have a big serve and I'm trying to go forward. And I don't have really long rallies.