With a display of power tennis that left Centre Court gasping, Elena Rybakina reached her first grand slam final with a dizzying 6-3, 6-3 victory over Simona Halep. But now the 23-year-old has given Wimbledon a looming headache.
When the All England Club decided to ban Russian and Belarusian players in April, part of its thinking was to avoid the embarrassment of the Duchess of Cambridge handing a trophy to a Russian-born player while the war in Ukraine raged.
But on Saturday Rybakina, who was born in Russia and still lives in Moscow although she switched to play for Kazakhstan four years ago, will have every chance of lifting the famous Venus Rosewater Dish. Especially if her game remains as destructive as it was against Halep.
After Rybakina had blown her opponent off the court with her extraordinary serve – which touched 120mph – and her venomous groundstrokes, she also displayed some nifty footwork when asked afterwards if she felt Russian in her heart.
“What does it mean for you to feel?” she replied. “I mean, I’m playing tennis, so for me, I’m enjoying my time here. I feel for the players who couldn’t come here, but I’m just enjoying playing here on the biggest stage, enjoying my time and trying to do my best,” she added.
Rybakina insisted that she was delighted to represent Kazakhstan but became evasive again when asked whether she still lived in Moscow. “I think I’m based on tour because I’m travelling every week. I practise in Slovakia between the tournaments. I had camps in Dubai. So I don’t live anywhere, to be honest.”
These were difficult questions for the likable Rybakina to answer, and there was considerable sympathy for her facing them after the biggest win of her career. But the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpishchev, was quick to recognise the propaganda victory of Rybakina’s deep run as he promised his country would cheer her on. “The grass is perfect for Rybakina,” he said. “Serves cool, plays flat, clear shots. Lena can win Wimbledon. Everything is deserved. It’s great that everything turned out this way, we will root for her,” he told a Russian website.
What made Rybakina’s victory so impressive was that Halep had by far the best form in the tournament, having only conceded a total of 28 games in her five matches, the fewest dropped en route to a Wimbledon semi-final for a decade.
The Romanian had also won 12 straight matches at Wimbledon, including taking the 2019 title against Serena Williams. Yet she had no answers to Rybakina’s power or poise.
Afterwards Rybakina insisted that she was nervous. But if she was, she disguised it with a conjuror’s sleight of hand. She won the opening game to love, crashing down three huge serves along with a dainty drop shot, and then broke Halep to go 2-0 up. Another easy hold followed, and the Kazakh was 3-0 up in just eight minutes. The pattern had been set. Soon she was a set up in 37 minutes and sprinting towards victory.
If Rybakina’s power was not troubling enough for Halep, she found her own game starting to creak too. Three double faults at the start of the second set immediately put her on the back foot as she was immediately broken and then went 2-0 behind.
The crowd sensed Halep might be going down meekly. But without warning Rybakina suddenly threw a horror show of a service game, shunting the ball repeatedly out of court as she was broken to love as the score was pulled back to 2-2.
But it was only a blip. Halep was broken again after two more double faults to go 4-2 down. Shortly afterwards another double fault and a backhand error allowed Rybakina to clinch the match – and become the youngest Wimbledon finalist since Garbiñe Muguruza in 2015.
Slowly she is allowing herself to dream of a Wimbledon final against Ons Jabeur, who will be the first African and Arab woman to play in a grand slam final. “I remember I met Ons for the first time when we were playing a WTA 125K,” she recalled. “She was very nice to help me to find the club because she had a car. I think it’s just amazing to think that we are making history.”
The prospect of getting the trophy from Kate Middleton is also enticing her. “For sure it’s an honour and I’m going to be very excited for this moment no matter if I win or lose,” she said.
“I think it’s just something to remember, and it’s going to be amazing. Ons is a very good, tricky player and I think it’s going to be a great match.”
It was impossible not to be enchanted by Rybakina’s happiness and joy – as well as the quality of her tennis. However behind the scenes, and their pristine smiles, Wimbledon’s suits are no doubt shuffling uneasily.