LONDON, Great Britain - Magdalena Rybarikova is fit and firing on the grass again, which is a long way from where she was a year ago. The 28-year-old Slovakian, who reached a career-high ranking at No.31 in 2013, is rounding into form after a seven-month absence to undergo surgery on her left wrist and right knee nearly a year ago.
Rybarikova began her 2017 season in February on the ITF Circuit, and after falling as low as No.453 in March she has pushed her ranking all the way back up to No.87 on the strength of four ITF titles, including two 100K titles on grass in the lead-up to Wimbledon in Surbiton and Ilkley.
"I think it’s incredible," Rybarikova told WTA Insider after her first round win over No.51 Monica Niculescu at Wimbledon. "If someone had told me I’d be Top 100 this fast, I wouldn’t have believed them because this is really an amazing year for me right now."
The win sets up an enticing second round match against World No.3 Karolina Pliskova on Thursday. Rybarikova's rise - she is now 14-1 at all levels on grass this season - has not gone unnoticed by Pliskova. The two have never faced off but the Czech, who has a chance to leave Wimbledon as the new World No.1, is aware of the challenge Rybarikova presents.
"I think it's the toughest draw in the second round so far for me at the Grand Slams," Pliskova said after her first round win. "For being seeded, I think it's a very tough, tough round.
"We [have not] played, but I know she can be really dangerous. Especially now she was coming back [from] injury, she had some good wins. Definitely she's ready to play. On grass I think she can be dangerous with her game which she's having. She can play a lot of slices, dropshots, serving well, also good at the net. Expecting a tough match, definitely."
WTA Insider caught up with a very happy Rybarikova at Wimbledon.
WTA Insider: You must be incredibly pleased with your 2017 season so far.
Rybarikova: I started to play at the end of February; that was my first match, and then I had some tournaments in March. From there, I started winning so many - well, four - but so many tournaments!
They were on the ITF, so that’s obviously different from the WTA, but it was still great after seven months off. It’s great to have some matches, but I didn’t expect that I would play so well. I played the semifinals at a WTA tournament in Nottingham, beating a couple of good players. So I’m actually very glad and happy the way things are going.
WTA Insider: Can you talk through the injuries you had to deal with?
Rybarikova: I had a problem for a couple of years with my left wrist, but I always managed to play somehow. I’d get some injections, but in the end, it didn’t work out. I had so much pain. The big pain started before Indian Wells last year, where I managed to make the quarterfinals. But still, I had so much pain playing that event. That’s when I realized I couldn’t play with so much pain anymore.
I took some time off, and I was hoping it’d be ok. I was playing my home tournament in Trnava, an ITF 100K. It’s 30 minutes from Bratislava. I couldn’t hit a backhand, but I figured it was so close to where I live, that I would play, and only hit slice backhands.
That was a huge mistake because in my first match, I was sliding for a ball when I made a bad movement and hyperextended my knee. I felt so much pain there, and that’s where my knee pain started. I couldn’t walk really good; my doctor said it didn’t look that bad. But I still took off, and that was really bad, because even with a wrist injury, you can still do a lot of things. You can run with wrist pain, but with the knee, you can’t do anything. I did a lot of sitting.
Wimbledon was coming, and so I was still hoping to be okay because my doctor said it wasn’t that bad. The wrist would also take some time. I didn’t practice much, but I still wanted to try tournaments, so I entered the event in Nottingham, but had to retire in the second round because of the knee pain. I wasn’t fit enough for Wimbledon either; I could still play, but with the pain in my wrist, it was too much.
After that I decided that I want to see a doctor. I went to the States, near Philadelphia, but it didn't work out because I still had some pain. So at the end I had to go for surgery for my wrist in Belgium.
I was still hoping the knee won't need the surgery, but after the surgery of my wrist, one doctor said I had a piece of cartilage that was kind of moving in my knee. So we had to take the piece out and then shape my knee. It was the same kind of thing, actually, on my wrist - a piece of bone was also moving around in there.
I was kind of lucky. I didn't need two huge surgeries. It took some time, but it was arthroscopic. My knee was supposed to be ready in one month, and it was ready in four months. I was disappointed because I was supposed to play the Australian Open but I couldn't because I had pain all the time.
I think my ligaments in my knee were not ready still. Every movement it was so painful. I was getting really sad and upset because I thought the surgery didn't help what with it needing so much time after. But after some time, it was getting better and better; the wrist was supposed to be four months. The knee started to get better and better but it took seven months altogether.
It was tough because we didn’t know what to do, how that will go, if I can play again at the same level or not, if the knee will hold or if the wrist will hold. For now, everything holds (knocks on wood).
I'm really happy for that. I just did my recovery when I was having free time. You just have to be patient. I went to watch our girls at Fed Cup, just to cheer, and it was funny so many people were like, 'Oh, are you still playing tennis?' They thought I was done. It was tough to hear sometimes because I wasn’t out for that long. When you're not in the eyes of the people, then they forget about you.
I played my first tournament in February at a ITF 25K in Altenkirchen, Germany. I made semifinals but people didn't see it, so they said, 'Oh, I see you don't do well. You see the other girls do well, but what happened?'
That's tough to hear after such a time; you hope to hear more supporting words than this, but I was positive and said, 'Yeah, well, I hope I'm going to be back. In this way, I had a tough time so it was tough to hear, but now everything is opposite. You know how it works.
I'm very pleased, I have my team around me, also parents, my coach - he's my fitness coach, my tennis coach so he helped me and I'm very glad I'm back right now.
WTA Insider: During those seven months, with the surgery and the complications, did you ever think your career might be over?
Rybarikova: Maybe if I was over 30. I’m not the youngest one, but had I been over 30, I might have started to think about retirement. I was thinking that, if at the end of the year I wasn’t Top 100 or something around there, because I was hoping for No.150 at least. If I was only No.300 or No.250, then it would have been tough, especially if I had some pain.
But none of that happened, and I was very pleased. I’m very lucky that it worked out.
WTA Insider: When you played your first tournament in February, did you feel like you were rushing back into things? Or were you ready to go?
Rybarikova: I took my time because I wanted to be really ready. I didn’t want to go on court with any pain. I didn’t end up having pain when I came back, maybe a few feelings. Sometimes I’ll play and feel a little pain, but it was good. I could manage the pain. I was very happy with how I played my first tournament, making the semifinals. It was a 25K, but it was still really good.
I was surprised with how well the girls were playing at that level. Eight years ago, playing at that level, it was much more different and the girls didn’t play that well. Right now, they really play quite well. The girls here, too, in qualifying, it’s a really high level.
I was happy to play a semifinal; I lost easily there, but my body was destroyed. I had a few tough matches along the way, but I was happy with how I played. I was positive and really glad to have no pain. That was the most positive thing looking ahead to other tournaments. Had I lost in the first round, it wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world, but it was a big boost to do well right away.
The game was there; I just had to heal my body and get fitter.
WTA Insider: You won in Surbiton and Ilkley. We know your game can be very dangerous on grass. You won Birmingham in 2009. How do you rate your game right now? Are you close to being where you once were?
Rybarikova: I think so. It depends on who you’re playing. Sometimes you can play someone with a worse ranking, but you don’t like their game so you can lose. But I feel good on the court right now.
I’ve still only been playing ITF tournaments, and haven’t faced too many Top 30 players. I played Konta and lost to her in two sets; it was a pretty good match and I was a little tired because I’d played Surbiton and then semis in Nottingham. I’d played a lot of matches. Still, it was an okay match. It might have been different had I had these results in Birmingham or Eastbourne. I don’t want to say I’m playing amazing until I’m on that level consistently. I’m trying to stay down to earth.
It looks like I’ll play Karolina; she’s an amazing player right now. She’s almost No.1, and so will be a huge favorite. I’ll just enjoy the match. She plays really good, just won Eastbourne. For me, it’ll be very difficult. But I’m looking forward to seeing how I am against the top players. It’ll be interesting to see, and I hope it’ll be a good match.
WTA Insider: You seem very happy and relaxed. Injury breaks are never good, but sometimes the time away can leave you more refreshed and renew your hunger. Do you feel that way?
Rybarikova: You have to enjoy what you’re doing. Before, winning a match wasn’t a big deal. It was still kind of normal. Beating someone with a worse ranking than me was expected. But suddenly, I’m the favorite, even when I’m against Niculescu, who has a better ranking than me. It’s not supposed to be like that right now; I just won some ITF tournaments. The girls are playing well, so I should just enjoy it. I’m just glad to be playing well and being healthy.