Elena Rybakina bounced back from a slow start to kick off her Wimbledon title defense with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 defeat of Shelby Rogers in 1 hour and 43 minutes.
Only one Wimbledon women's champion's title defense has ended in the first round in the Open Era -- Stefanie Graf, who fell to Lori McNeil in her 1994 opener. For a set, Rybakina seemed as though she might join Graf, but asserted her authority thereafter, dropping just five points behind her serve in sets two and three.
The Kazakh had come into Wimbledon under a cloud of uncertainty regarding her health. A viral illness had forced her to withdraw from Roland Garros ahead of her third-round tie with Sara Sorribes Tormo. After returning in Berlin and reaching the second round, Rybakina pulled out of Eastbourne last week due to its lingering effects.
Rybakina also faced a renowned upset artist off the bat. No.49-ranked Rogers had previously notched seven Top 10 wins in her career, including one at each of the three other Grand Slams. She had also defeated Rybakina 6-2, 6-4 in their last encounter, in the second round of 's-Hertogenbosch 2022 on grass and twice overall in their five previous meetings.
However, Rybakina landed 12 aces on her way to passing this test. She extended her overall 2023 record to 34-8, also including a second major final at the Australian Open and WTA 1000 titles in Indian Wells and Rome.
How the match was won: Between the first and second sets, Rybakina's greatest statistical improvement was on serve. In the opening stanza, she only landed 52% of her first serves, and the disparity between the points she won behind it (94%) and those she won behind her second delivery (27%) was a contributing factor to falling behind a set.
However, across the second and third sets Rybakina's first-serve percentage increased to 75%, and her second serve winning percentage to 67%. Indeed, the 24-year-old only conceded five points behind her serve in sets two and three.
In truth, the World No.3 only played one loose service game in the match -- her opening one, which started with a double fault and featured two cheap forehand errors. Afterwards, she admitted she had been nervous opening the second day on Centre Court.
Rogers took advantage of that with stellar first-strike tennis to maintain her lead in the opening set. But her own form plummeted just as Rybakina's rose. In the second and third sets, Rybakina was not only impenetrable on serve but accurate off the ground, hitting 20 winners to seven unforced errors in this stretch. Rogers' statistics were the inverse: having powered 13 winners in the first set, the American found only seven in the next two, outweighed by 20 unforced errors.
In Rybakina's words: "I think I didn't start that well. I was not moving that great. Straightaway was a break from the first game. So, of course, after that it's difficult. I was not that reactive on the return also.
"Of course, on grass everything changes quickly. With a break down, it's not easy. Shelby, she played really well also first set. She didn't have so many mistakes. I'm not so happy that it took me the whole set, I would say. In the end I just tried to focus on every point, firstly on my serve, then just to try to get the returns."