After capturing the match of her life, Elena Rybakina did not toss her racquet skyward or fall back onto the crisped, brown grass of Centre Court. There were no tears -- or any other visible signs of joy -- other than a modestly clenched fist. But as she walked toward the net to meet defeated Ons Jabeur, almost imperceptibly, Rybakina exhaled.
That one, small gesture was the perfect postscript to this remarkable 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 triumph, the emphatic end of a difficult journey well traveled.
Before Wimbledon, the 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan lost two of her three matches on grass and was a 100-to-1 longshot to win the title. Rybakina is the second-lowest ranked woman in the Open Era (No.23) to win the title at the All England Club. And yet, in retrospect this shouldn’t have come as a great surprise. Rybakina was a future Grand Slam champion all along, hiding in plain sight.
Like so many lives, hers was shattered by the global pandemic. It was more a matter of horrific timing than anything else.
Rybakina began 2020 with two months of incandescent tennis. At the nascent age of 20, she won her second career title in Hobart and reached three other finals, in Shenzhen, St. Petersburg and Dubai -- all good (very good) for a 19-4 record. A thigh injured forced her to withdraw in Doha, then COVID-19 struck and everyone’s world became a vastly different place.
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“It was very tough because I was going just up,” Rybakina told reporters after defeating Simona Halep in the semifinals. “I thought that I can play every tournament no matter how I feel. It was just going always my way. I felt really good. Everything was new for me.”
She was unable to practice for two-and-a-half months, and on her return to tennis nearly six months later, Rybakina was not the same player. And while she made remarkable progress by some standards in 2021 -- reaching the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, the fourth round at Wimbledon and a bronze medal match in Tokyo -- those results fell short of the high bar of expectations raised the year before. Injuries and a positive COVID-19 test conspired to create a disjointed start to 2022.
“It wasn’t easy,” Rybakina said. “It kept on happening. I was, like, very upset, of course.”
Her coach, Stefano Vukov, had some advice.
“You don’t have to wait when you’re going to be in the perfect shape,” he told Rybakina. “You’re going to win no matter how you feel. You just need to keep working and keep improving.”
She began to understand that, ultimately, being perfect every day isn’t a prerequisite to winning matches and going deep into tournaments. The sixth game of the final set against Jabeur was the critical moment Rybakina brought that idea into actual practice. Down love-40, with Jabeur seemingly about to draw even at 3-all, she erased three break points, won five straight and created an insurmountable 4-2 lead.
Rybakina demonstrated remarkable poise throughout the tournament. Her first three matches all required tiebreaks, which she won. After dropping the first set to Ajla Tomljanovic in the quarterfinals, she won 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. Rybakina went one better after Jabeur took the opening frame, losing only four games in the last two sets. That ended Jabeur’s 11-match winning streak.
“She started to be more aggressive,” Jabeur said later. “I think she stepped in the court much more and put a lot of pressure on me. That I didn’t find a solution for unfortunately today.”
It was the first time since 2006 that a women’s winner came back to win after losing the first set.
Break points, a sound measure of competitive spirit, were all Rybakina. She broke Jabeur’s serve four times in six opportunities -- and saved nine of the 11 against her.
“She played most of the break points really well,” Jabeur said. “I had to accept it. I couldn’t do more.”
If her career was seen as unfulfilled at the very highest level before this fortnight, it now appears the 23-year-old is on -- or even ahead of schedule. Rybakina is the youngest Wimbledon women’s champion since 21-year-old Petra Kvitova in 2011; there are only three younger active Grand Slam champions of either gender, Emma Raducanu (19), Iga Swiatek (21) and Bianca Andreescu (22).
It’s the most recent example of the change afoot in women’s tennis. The line of demarcation goes back to the 2017 Australian Open, when Serena Williams won her 23rd major title. Of the 21 Grand Slam tournaments played since, 14 different women have won at least one Grand Slam singles title -- and two of them, Ashleigh Barty and Caroline Wozniacki -- have retired.
And, for the first time in the Open Era, Wimbledon has produced six different champions in a span of six years.
Rybakina’s big, aggressive, flat game is made for grass, but it should play nicely on the upcoming hard-court summer season. She led all women with 53 aces at Wimbledon and has a Hologic WTA Tour-leading 221 for the year.
As she addressed the Wimbledon patrons afterward, it crossed Rybakina’s mind that she might start crying.
“But,” she said in her post-match press conference, “somehow I hold it. Maybe later when I’m going to be alone in the room, I’m going to cry nonstop.”
It was sooner than that. Toward the end of her press conference she was asked how her parents -- watching from home -- might have reacted to their daughter’s achievement.
“Probably they’re going to be super proud,” Rybakina said, tears in her eyes.
“You wanted to see emotion. Kept it too long.”