- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
LONDON — You would never have known Elena Rybakina had just won Wimbledon.
As Ons Jabeur pushed the forehand wide, sealing Rybakina’s first Grand Slam, she clenched her left fist in celebration in the direction of her box. The new champion met with Jabeur at the net, gave the crowd one wave and that was it, save for a relieved exhale. Nothing else, as if this was a first-round match.
Meanwhile, those in her box were clapping, hugging, crying and smiling.
“It’s so unexpectable these two weeks, what happened,” Rybakina said. “It was such a tough match mentally and physically, so in the end I was just super happy that it finished. In this moment I just didn’t believe that I made it. But same time it’s, like, too many emotions. I was just trying to keep myself calm. Maybe one day you will see huge reaction from me, but unfortunately not today. Today I was too stressed out.”
As the presentation was being arranged, she stayed in her seat. Then a couple of minutes later after finishing the match, it dawned on her she’d just won Wimbledon, and she made the trip up to the stands, via the nearest gangway, to hug those closest to her. It was all very muted as she became the first player representing Kazakhstan to win a Grand Slam singles title.
“I need to teach her how to celebrate,” Jabeur said.
She said to the press later that she had bottled up her emotions, and the whole time she was on court doing her interview she was telling herself not to cry. Perhaps those tears would come later when she had her first moment alone, she said. But it was near the end of the news conference when they pushed through, after she was asked what that victory would mean for her parents.
“You wanted to see emotion,” she said, tears on her cheeks. “I kept it too long.”
For the past two weeks she has picked her way through the draw, but the questions she faced were as much about her tournament run as they were heritage. Here she was representing Kazakhstan, having switched allegiance from Russia in 2018. She has fielded plenty of questions on her nationality, having been born in Moscow, in a time in tennis where players from Russia and Belarus are banned from competing because of the invasion of Ukraine. Each time she deflected that line away, talking instead of her pride at playing for Kazakhstan.
And then she ended up winning the whole thing, handed the Venus Rosewater Dish by the Duchess of Cambridge, who was dressed in brilliant yellow.
“I can’t control where I’m born,” she said after the final. “People believed in me. Kazakhstan supported me so much.”
While Jabeur wears her heart on her sleeve, has a mischievous side and is called the Minister of Happiness, Rybakina barely lets any emotion show.
“I think she does react little bit, just you have to see it sometimes,” Jabeur said. “I’m usually someone that doesn’t focus on my opponent. But it’s nice to play Elena, to be honest with you. Even when you lose against her, she didn’t do any big celebration or anything.”
Jabeur was the overwhelming crowd favorite. Even in defeat, she received a much warmer reception in the postmatch interview.
“I’m trying to inspire many generations from my country — it’s tennis you know, there’s always only one winner. I want to thank this beautiful crowd for the two weeks, it’s been amazing. I just want to wish Eid Mubarak to Muslims all around the world.”
It was a day history was made on Centre Court, with the first Wimbledon final since 1962 featuring two women both appearing in their initial Grand Slam title match. Jabeur was the first Arab woman to reach a Slam final, and the first from Africa since pro players were admitted to the major tournaments in 1968. And it was the Tunisian who stormed through the first set. She was moving a nervous Rybakina all over the court, forcing her into 17 unforced errors. Jabeur was bouncing around, a ball of energy, with the drop shots finding the right areas, and Rybakina scrambling to the corners.
“Maybe the first set I was too nervous,” Rybakina said. “Of course, Ons, she played well. I needed time to adjust to her game. But then after I thought that I’m going to fight till the end no matter what. Just tried to focus on every point because it was very tough.”
But Rybakina found her rhythm and range, and Jabeur had no answers, the roles reversed. Rybakina’s would not drop serve again across the next two sets — saving seven break points — and would break Jabeur’s serve four times. The tactics Jabeur deployed in the first set weren’t working as effectively, Rybakina was reading the drop shots, and the errors crept in.
“Elena stole my title, but it’s okay,” Jabeur said afterwards, with Rybakina nearly forgetting to thank her parents in the speech, and saying “I ran today so much so I don’t think I need to do fitness anymore.”
Jabeur is a trailblazer in her own right, but this was Rybakina’s afternoon. Growing up she found herself well outside the top-ranked Russian players. In 2018 she was outside the top 500 in women’s tennis. But she was approached by the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation, who promised to back her. Since she made that switch, her game has grown, with her reaching a career high No. 12 in January.
Her power has been incredible at Wimbledon, with her serve being one of the most ruthless on the tour — her tally of 221 aces is the most on the WTA tour this season. But she’s flown under the radar. Her win over Jabeur was just her third against a top 20-ranked player on grass — the second was against Simona Halep in the semifinals. Her last title came in 2020. But in those second and third sets — form and logic went out the window, and Rybakina was at her best, just like she was when she dispatched Halep in the semifinals.
Rybakina will be a national hero in Kazakhstan, and life now changes as she becomes the youngest Wimbledon champion since 2011. But exactly what’s next? When she got here, reaching the second week was going to be a bonus. But winning? Well, she hadn’t let herself get carried away.
“I have no idea [how life will change],” Rybakina said. “I just know that now for life I’m a membership here at Wimbledon. It sounds amazing.”
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