Elena Rybakina becomes one of Wimbledon’s biggest surprise women’s champions

Elena Rybakina
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Elena Rybakina, a Russian until switching nationality to Kazakhstan in 2018, became one of the unlikeliest Wimbledon women’s champions in history, prevailing at a tournament that banned Russians from playing.

She rallied past Tunisian Ons Jabeur 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 in the first Wimbledon women’s final to pit a pair of first-time major finalists since 1962.

“It’s a fairy tale,” Rybakina said.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old ranked No. 23, became the second-lowest-ranked woman to win Wimbledon after Venus Williams, who was No. 31 when she won in 2007. But Williams had already won three Wimbledon titles. Rybakina had never made it past the quarterfinals of a major before this run.

“I was super nervous before the match, during the match and, honestly, happy that it finished,” she said after receiving the Venus Rosewater Dish trophy from Kate Middleton, The Duchess of Cambridge.

Rybakina didn’t expect to make it past the third round, and it showed in the first set controlled by Jabeur. The Tunisian, known for her array of talents and game plans, tried to get the powerful-serving Rybakina to move, particularly to the net. Rybakina eventually found her footing, breaking Jabeur to start the second set, and carried that momentum through.

I run today so much so I don’t think I need to do fitness anymore,” said the 6-foot Rybakina, who had more unforced errors in the first set (17) than the second and third combined (16).

Her match point reaction was so muted that Jabeur joked she needed to teach her how to celebrate.

“I didn’t know what to do. It was shocking,” she said. “I was just trying to keep myself calm. Maybe one day you will see huge reaction from me, but unfortunately not today.”

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Rybakina was born and raised in Moscow (and reportedly still resides there), but in 2018 switched nationality to Kazakhstan, which offered her more financial support to further her tennis career.

Asked on Wednesday if she felt more Kazakh or Russian, Rybakina said it was a “tough question.”

“I’m really happy representing Kazakhstan. They believed in me,” she said Thursday when asked a similar question. “There is no more question about how I feel.”

In April, Wimbledon became the first (and so far only) tennis major to ban Russian and Belarusian players over the war in Ukraine. The ban did not extend to Russian-born players who previously switched nationalities to other countries, such as Rybakina and Kazakhstan’s top male singles player, Alexander Bublik.

“In the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The Championships,” the All England Club said in a statement then. “It is therefore our intention, with deep regret, to decline entries from Russian and Belarusian players to The Championships 2022.”

The ATP and WTA Tours responded by stripping Wimbledon of ranking points. All of the best, healthy players still showed up.

No Kazakh singles player had made a major semifinal before Rybakina’s run the last two weeks.

She was a rising star before the pandemic, reaching four finals in her first five WTA tournaments of 2020 and getting up to No. 17 in the rankings.

Rybakina didn’t take a similar leap in 2021, though she did beat Serena Williams during a French Open quarterfinal run. She lost two medal matches at the Olympics and ended the year ranked 14th.

Rybakina opened 2022 by taking runner-up to world No. 1 Ash Barty in an Australian Open tune-up. She hadn’t reached another tournament semifinal this year before her Wimbledon run.

Jabeur said after losing in the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year that she would win the title this year. She even put a picture of the trophy as her phone’s lock screen background. Still, she became the first African woman, and first Arab or North African man or woman, to reach a Grand Slam singles final in the Open Era.

“Elena stole my title, but it’s OK,” said Jabeur, nicknamed the “Minister of Happiness” in Tunisia. “Hopefully next time will be mine.”

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