Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina has a confession to make: She wasn't high on confidence as she readied for The Championships.
The 23-year-old from Kazakhstan has been playing full time on the Hologic WTA Tour for just three years, but she announced her arrival in 2020. After a rise in 2019 that put her inside the Top 40, Rybakina made the final or better at four of her first six tournaments of that season in Shenzhen, Hobart -- which she won -- St. Petersburg and Dubai.
Then the tour shut down due to Covid. On the resumption, Rybakina solidified herself as a Top 30 player and one of the premium talents among the younger ranks of the tour. But the big results remained just out of reach. She played the bronze medal match at the Olympics, but lost in three sets. She had lost her past four tour finals. Despite possessing the big weapons that can upend champions, as she did against Serena Williams at Roland Garros last year, Rybakina could not find the consistency that was promised in 2020.
"I'm not going to lie, before this tournament I was very down," Rybakina said on the WTA Insider Podcast. "I was thinking, 'Oh, I probably will never get the same feeling,' which I had in 2020, you know?"
Somehow, those doubts freed her up for a historic run to the Wimbledon title. After coming back from a set down to defeat World No.2 Ons Jabeur to become Kazakhstan's first major champion, Rybakina became the youngest Wimbledon champion since Petra Kvitova in 2011. At No.17, she is the lowest seed to win the tournament since Venus Williams won the tournament as the 23-seed in 2007. The tour's ace leader engineered the first comeback in a Wimbledon final since Amelie Mauresmo came back from a set down to beat Justine Henin in 2006.
- In retrospect, Elena Rybakina was hiding in plain sight all along
- 'Today history has been made': Rybakina praised after Wimbledon win
- Jabeur stays positive after Wimbledon loss: 'It wasn't meant to be'
- Win or lose, Ons Jabeur left a lasting impression at home and abroad
Rybakina joined the WTA Insider Podcast after her post-win media rounds to discuss her fortnight and reveal the doubts and challenges that she managed to become the newest member of the Grand Slam club.
WTA Insider: You told reporters that you came into the tournament just hoping to make the second week. At what point did that start to change?
Rybakina: Yes, it's true because we were working hard but it was a tough last few months with the injuries. I was sick, I didn't have good preparation for Wimbledon. So I kind of relaxed and I didn't have any expectations. I was actually thinking ahead a bit, that I need to do good preparation to be physically better for the U.S. swing.
I was just so relaxed from this tournament. I think this is something that helped me to get through the second week. After the last few days, I was just starting to be nervous because I was thinking that, yes, it's already closer to the final and today I was playing for the title, so of course I was more nervous.
But in the beginning I was just so relaxed and really enjoyed my time here. Also being with my sister, I didn't see her for many months. So yeah, the first week it was just a joy.
WTA Insider: Did that feeling of relaxation help you in your matches? Even though you did not lose a set in the first week, you had to play quite a few tiebreaks and 7-5 sets.
Rybakina: Yes, for sure. This first week, I saw improvement a lot. It was so many close matches and I played tiebreaks almost every match from the first week.
So I was very proud also that I was managing to win these tiebreaks, because if we take the statistics in the previous matches, I was always losing these tiebreaks. So I think this is something also which gave me confidence.
WTA Insider: When we talk about you, it's hard not to discuss your incredible start to the 2020 season before the tour shut down due to Covid. Based on your trajectory at the time, you could have been a contender at Wimbledon that year. How different do you feel as a player now compared to then?
Rybakina: Of course, I started really well that season and I just remember that really everything was going my way. Even if I didn't have any more energy on the matches, I was still going there and somehow showing my best and doing some unbelievable shots. I still have some videos. It was always just going my way.
But I think also the last two years, so many things happened, I think I got more experience from everything. I think it's just unlucky years for everybody, with COVID. It's been really tough. If we even don't talk about sport, it was tough for everyone. Mentally also.
Rybakina: You've only been playing full time on the Hologic WTA Tour since 2019. Did this victory come earlier than you expected, later than you expected?
Rybakina: Of course I wanted this earlier. I'm not going to lie. But in the end, if we talk about the practices, about everything, of course we did so much work, but in my head I was thinking, no, probably I need to do more fitness, I need to improve mentally. I don't know how it's going to be. You don't know what to expect so much.
I think that I had the game but maybe didn't believe as much. But now for sure, it gives me more confidence to go and play other events.
WTA Insider: You played your first Wimbledon last year. In your second appearance, you've won it. Are you surprised that your first major title came at Wimbledon as opposed to the hard courts or Roland Garros?
Rybakina: Before my professional season on grass started, I thought that I cannot play on grass because I just had the experience of playing juniors. I came and practiced for two days and I had to play at match. Of course I didn't have confidence at all.
Then my first season on grass, I remember I started in 's-Hertogenbosch. I was playing really well and my coach was telling me all the time, and actually everybody around, that my game is really for the grass and you just need to believe. I was like, 'OK, but I'm still not confident.' I remember the year I lost in qualies at Wimbledon, it was also tough conditions. It was super windy. But I was playing really well.
Last year I lost fourth round. It's tough, because after I felt that yes, I have confidence to play on grass, but this year, for example, I didn't play many matches before Wimbledon. So it's kind of tough to describe.
WTA Insider: In your press conference you got a bit emotional talking about how proud your parents are of you. You had offers to play collegiate tennis in the U.S. and you said it was a tough decision for your parents to let you pursue pro tennis instead. Do you feel a sense of vindication?
Rybakina: Yes, of course. That's why I probably got emotional in the press conference. It's just difficult to keep everything inside. Better that I throw a racquet on the court rather than cry on the press conference (laughs).
But yes, of course, my parents, they sacrificed a lot of their time and everything. Even though they didn't know that I'm going to be a professional tennis player, they always believed in me, supported, just because they saw how much fun and how I'm enjoying my practices after school.
It's just amazing that in the end, like everybody says, it's kind of a fairytale, you know?