Wimbledon 2022: In a tournament of the unexpected, Elena Rybakina is a champion

LONDON — Even Elena Rybakina didn’t expect to win Wimbledon this year. She didn’t even see herself reaching the second week.

She knew she had been putting in the work and had long-term dreams for herself, but she wasn’t happy with her preparation ahead of the tournament and had struggled with injuries recently. Rybakina, 23, didn’t have many expectations for herself when she started play at the tournament.

But match by match, against opponents like Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu, both former major champions, Rybakina proved to herself what she was capable of. And on Saturday, Rybakina stunned the world — and even herself — with a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 comeback victory over Ons Jabeur on Centre Court for the first major title of her career.

After the final point had been won as Jabeur’s backhand sailed out of bounds, the normally reserved Rybakina puffed out her cheeks and shook her head, seemingly in disbelief. She smiled only after she had shaken hands with Jabeur and the chair umpire.

“I’m actually speechless,” Rybakina said on court moments later. “To be a winner is just amazing, I don’t have the words to say how happy I am.”

How did Rybakina win on Saturday and what does it mean for her going forward? Here are our key takeaways.

That serve

Entering the match, Rybakina had a tournament-leading 49 aces — 19 more than any other woman — and was averaging eight per match. Not to mention, she had the second-fastest serve speed among the women at a blistering 122 mph (trailing only Coco Gauff‘s 124 mph). It had been a dominant, and nearly unstoppable, asset for Rybakina over the fortnight. But in the opening set on Saturday, Jabeur completely neutralized it — and Rybakina failed to record an ace for the first set all tournament.

But that dip in dominance didn’t last. Rybakina rediscovered her serve — and form, and all-around level — in the second set. In the final game of the set, she won every point on her serve, and sealed the set with an ace. Ultimately, she had four aces on the day, including one that notched 117 mph in the final game of the match, and perhaps most impressively, didn’t get broken again.

Fighting spirit

Never one to show much emotion on court, Rybakina stayed calm and composed despite not having the crowd on her side and Jabeur’s early control. If she was fazed, it never showed. When she returned to the court for the second set, she looked like a new player — with an answer for everything Jabeur sent her way.

It was a staggering turnaround, and she never allowed Jabeur a chance to get back into the match and almost completely silenced the crowd in the process. The unflappable Rybakina never yelled “come on” or “let’s go,” or even offered a hint of a smile, and appeared clinically focused on the next point.

While Jabeur had a number of consequential errors down the stretch, Rybakina never took her foot off of the gas.

The history-maker

Currently ranked No. 23, Rybakina became the first woman ranked outside of the WTA’s top 20 to win at Wimbledon since Venus Williams in 2007. And she became the first woman to win at the All England Club after losing the first set since Amelie Mauresmo in 2006, and the youngest woman to clinch the title since Petra Kvitova in 2011.

Rybakina was already the first player representing Kazakhstan to reach a major final, but she is now the first to take home the trophy as well. While the achievement is a monumental one for the Central Asian nation, Rybakina’s nationality has become the subject of scrutiny over the past two weeks. Born and raised in Russia, she switched federations in 2018 — Kazakhstan was formerly part of the Soviet Union and sits on the Russian border — in order to gain additional funding for her career.

As Russian and Belarusian players were banned from participating at Wimbledon this year because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Rybakina has repeatedly been asked about her allegiances and current ties to her home country. While she has downplayed her connection to Russia and said she was “really happy” to represent Kazakhstan, it is believed she still predominantly resides in Moscow and it added a layer of intrigue to the trophy presentation.

However, in front of the crowd and the bright glares of the cameras, both Rybakina and the Duchess of Cambridge were all smiles and pleasantries with the Venus Rosewater Dish.

The future is bright

Despite the milestone victory — and collecting a $2.4 million paycheck — Rybakina won’t see her efforts rewarded in the rankings. With the WTA stripping Wimbledon of ranking points because of the ban on Russian and Belarusian players, Rybakina will remain at No. 23 in the rankings on Monday. During any other major, Rybakina would have earned an addition 2,000 points and would have cracked the top 10 for the first time in her career.

Still, Rybakina now enters the hard-court portion of the season as a Grand Slam winner and will look to improve upon her career-best third-round appearance at the US Open. She had previously won one of her two titles before Wimbledon on the surface (at Hobart in 2020) and now with momentum and confidence on her side, she could have even more success.

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