With a Wimbledon title, Elena Rybakina finally cracks a smile
By Christopher Clarey
Elena Rybakina’s surprise run to the Wimbledon title — full of overwhelming serves, timely winners and underrated defense — was a thing of cruel beauty.
Poker face firmly in place, Rybakina, a 6-foot tower of power, knocked out rising stars like Chinese teenager Zheng Qinwen, former Grand Slam champions like Bianca Andreescu and Simona Halep and in Saturday’s final, the No. 2 player in the world, Ons Jabeur.
But however impressive, it was clear that this was not the outcome that most of those in the crowd or on the payrolls of the All England Club were yearning for.
The timing was all wrong, even if the 23-year-old Rybakina’s timing from the baseline was often pitch perfect.
You could sense the buzz kill on Centre Court, whose denizens roared for Jabeur from the start but greeted Rybakina and her victory, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, politely.
You could feel the letdown on Wimbledon’s player lawn, where tennis officials and a large group of Jabeur supporters, all dressed up with no title to celebrate, were well aware of the storyline that might have been.
Jabeur, nicknamed the Minister of Happiness by her fellow Tunisians, is not only a sympathetic figure but also a deeply symbolic one as an Arab and African woman succeeding at the highest reaches of a sport that aspires to be truly global.
Rybakina, ranked 23rd, plays for the vast and lightly populated nation of Kazakhstan but has never lived there for an extended period. She is a Russian who was born, raised and, until this year, based in Moscow, where her parents and many of her closest friends still reside.
Wimbledon once feted another tall, blonde Russian newcomer when Maria Sharapova won the title by surprise in 2004 at age 17. But Rybakina’s arrival comes at an awkward moment for those with Russian connections. The tournament barred all Russian and Belarusian players (and journalists) this year because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The move came after pressure from the British government led by outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has had a much worse weekend than Jabeur has had. But the ban was also put in place to deprive Russia and its leadership of the chance to use any Russian success at the tournament for propaganda.
Rybakina, who began representing Kazakhstan in 2018, was asked if her native country might try to politicize her victory.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m playing for Kazakhstan for a very, very long time. I represent it on the biggest tournaments, the Olympics, which was a dream come true. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, it’s always some news, but I cannot do anything about this.”
That is certainly true. Wimbledon, after all, has barred players who represent Russia, not players who used to represent Russia. And although Shamil Tarpischev, the longtime president of the Russian Tennis Federation, claimed “we have won Wimbledon” to a Russian state media outlet Saturday night, that certainly rings hollow. How do you convincingly paint Rybakina’s success as a bright and shiny tale of Russian triumph when it was Russia’s lack of support for her career that ultimately caused her to switch allegiances?
Rybakina pleaded mediocre English for not understanding a question about whether she condemned the war and never responded to it. But she made her tennis allegiance clear.
“I didn’t choose where I was born,” she said. “People believed in me. Kazakhstan supported me so much. Even today, I heard so much support. I saw the flags, so I don’t know how to answer these questions.”
She is hardly the first tennis player to take the funding and amenities and choose to represent another country. Britain has had plenty of imports, including former Canadian star Greg Rusedski and former Australian Johanna Konta.
Another Russian tennis player, Yaroslava Shvedova, began representing Kazakhstan in 2008 and later won the Wimbledon women’s doubles title. She also became the only player in the Open era to complete a so-called golden set at a Grand Slam tournament, winning all 24 points of the first set against Sara Errani in a third-round victory, 6-0, 6-4, at Wimbledon.
“It was good for my career,” Shvedova said of the switch. “When I was in Russia, I was around the No. 10 player, but when I moved to Kazakhstan I was the No. 1 player. I get goose bumps thinking about it, but I knew I had to do good and work hard because I was the leader and everyone was watching me.”
Winning Wimbledon for the first time certainly seemed like business as usual for Rybakina. At first, it barely seemed to register.
Match point secured, she lightly clenched her left fist, wiped her mouth with her wrist band, expelled a breath and sauntered forward to the net to shake the hand of a crestfallen Jabeur, then waved to the crowd with as much urgency as Queen Elizabeth waving by the window of her carriage.
“I need to teach her how to celebrate,” Jabeur said.
But it should come as no surprise that Rybakina’s feelings were simply under wraps, and a couple of hours later, after she had posed with the Venus Rosewater Dish awarded to the champion, she was asked at her news conference how her parents might react to her victory when she finally got the chance to speak with them.
Rybakina has not seen them for months and has been living a nomadic life since the war began, not returning to Russia since February.
“Probably, they’re going to be super proud,” she said of her parents, beginning to tear up.
“You wanted to see emotion,” she said, fighting to regain her composure. “Kept it too long.”
It was a poignant moment, more moving, to be truthful, than anything that happened Saturday on Centre Court, the Shakespearean scene of so many breakthroughs and breakdowns through the decades, including Jana Novotna’s crying on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent after blowing a lead against Steffi Graf in the 1993 final.
The history, all those ghosts on the grass, can hit a player hard as they try to join the club. But Rybakina, in only her second Wimbledon and in her first Grand Slam singles final, pulled it off with aplomb. She was already wearing her purple badge as a new member of the All England Club Saturday night. Her victory might not have been convenient to all concerned. (The Kazakhstanis would surely disagree.) But it was still a triumph: the product of hard choices and personal sacrifices, of a modified service motion that unleashed all that elastic power and of a gunslinger’s cool under duress that produced so many winners at just the right moments on a grand stage that suits her big game so well.