Traditionally, the women’s title at the All England Club has gone to the longer, stronger, power player. Think Venus Williams, who is listed as 6-foot-1 but plays taller, a five-time champion and master of leveraged geometry. Sister Serena, an inch under six feet, won seven Wimbledons. The six-foot Petra Kvitova is a two-time winner. Then there is Lindsay Davenport, at 6-2½ .
They were all capable of irresistible serves and iron-heavy groundstrokes. All aided and abetted by the slick grass at Wimbledon, which can send those lethal strokes sliding and skidding out of the strike zone.
Well, athletes aren’t always just big and powerful. They come in all kinds of different sizes and guises. The past two Wimbledon champions, Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep, saw to it that size no longer mattered. Barty stands 5-foot-5, an inch shorter than Halep. The last Wimbledon women’s champions of their stature? Believe it or not, Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Chris Evert, in 1980 and 1981.
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Barty and Halep compensated for their lack of height with the ability to maneuver swiftly and easily around the court, hitting a dazzling variety of trajectories and angles. Call it a “Movement” movement.
Saturday’s final between Elena Rybakina and Ons Jabeur is a classic clash of these two distinct styles. Rybakina, at 6-feet-0, hits the ball a ton -- tempo and timing are her friends. Jabeur is a magician, who routinely makes shots that are unfathomable, if not unimaginable. This will be the first time in the Open Era at Wimbledon that both women finalists will be playing in their first Grand Slam singles final.
“Interesting,” said Simona Halep, a straight-sets loser to Rybakina in the semifinals. “I don’t know [how] Rybakina is going to respond to Jabeur’s game. It’s changing the rhythm, it’s cutting the rhythm with many slices.
“I cannot say that Rybakina can keep this level. But probably she would if she really feels confident. So it’s going to be interesting to work, and I will watch it.”
Rybakina has produced 49 aces in six matches and more than half of her first serves (51 percent) haven’t come back into play.
“Rybakina is an aggressive player,” Jabeur said. “If you give her a little bit of time, she will take that away. I think she can play really good on grass because [she's] aggressive and changing the rhythm.
“She serves really well, so my main goal is to return as much balls as I can, to make her really work hard to win the point. I know she can hit really hard and hit a lot of winners.”
And yet, Jabeur has an edge in a number of meaningful return categories. She’s won 46 percent of the points returning first serves (Ryabakina is at 32 percent) and 47 percent of her return games, well ahead of Rybakina’s 30 percent. In service games won, Rybakina holds a surprisingly slender margin, 86 percent to 85 percent.
Rybakina has been moving quite well for a six-footer, but Jabeur is more fluid and flexible. On one memorable point against Tatjana Maria, Jabeur took a ball nearly three feet behind her with a little flick half-volley and then, in anticipation of the next shot, spun 360 degrees.
1 - For the first time in the Open Era two female players at their maiden Grand Slam final will face each other in the Championship match at #Wimbledon. Surprise.@WTA @WTA_insider #Wimbledon2022 pic.twitter.com/dD5yR5iBTg— OptaAce (@OptaAce) July 7, 2022
“Maybe it’s coming back,” Jabeur said. “They used to play a lot of slices before, serve and volley. I like to see the different style. It was very tough to adapt to that game, to that changing rhythm. But I know it annoys a lot of people, and I’m happy to do that.”
Last year, Barty out-served the 6-foot-1 Karolina Pliskova, with a 7-6 edge in aces and broke the Czech player six times. Seven-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin was the same height as Barty -- and played a similarly diverse game.
Still, her Wimbledon experience didn’t go as well. The Belgian reached the final twice at the All England Club twice, falling to Venus Williams in 2001 and five years later to the 5-foot-9 Amelie Mauresmo. It was the only major Henin never won.
Rybakina and Jabeur have played three times before, but it was 1-all when that third match ended a year ago with Rybakina retiring due to illness in Chicago.
“I know that my game could really bother her,” Jabeur said. “I really try to focus more on myself, do a lot of slices, try to really make her work hard. I know that type of players usually win the point in two, three shots. For me, I’m just going to continue and do what I do on the court.”
Said Rybakina, “I know how Ons plays. She knows how I play. We know each other well. We see how it’s going to go.”
And the last word goes to Pam Shriver, who stands an even six feet tall.
“Finals is in the hands of Rybakina’s power,” the 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion wrote in a text. “If she plays the final like she did in the semis, it’s hard to see how Jabeur can work her magical feel.
“Grass courts are still built for the big server, so advantage to the player from Kazakhstan.”
History favors Rybakina, but recent history is with Jabeur.