Rybakina will bid to make history on Saturday when she faces Ons Jabeur of Tunisia
Moscow-born Elena Rybakina stands on the verge of an unlikely achievement on Saturday when she takes on Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur in front of what will be a packed house at Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
Rybakina’s journey to the final comes after the likes of Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and Daria Kasatkina of Russia were just two of the players forced to watch this year’s Wimbledon from afar because of the All England Club’s objection to their nationalities.
Nonetheless, Rybakina could herald a somewhat awkward moment for Wimbledon – and even the British Royal Family – if she can triumph on the London grass courts in what could be a star-making turn.
Who is Elena Rybakina?
Rybakina, who turned 23 just last month, is a Russian-born tennis player who has represented Kazakhstan on the international scene since she was 19.
Prior to her historic run to the Wimbledon finals this month, her best Grand Slam performance came on clay as she reached the quarterfinals of last year’s French Open – a showing which helped her towards a career-best world ranking of 12 earlier this year.
Her ranking has since dropped to 23, and it won’t rise regardless of what happens at SW19 on Saturday after the WTA refused to award ranking points at this year’s Wimbledon due to the absence of players from Russia and Belarus.
Why does Rybakina represent Kazakhstan?
Despite being born in Moscow, Rybakina switched allegiances in June 2018 and opted to represent Kazakhstan shortly after her 19th birthday, after she was offered a handsome financial package by the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation, forgoing a collegiate career in the United States in the process.
Russia’s loss was clearly Kazakhstan’s gain. Her breakthrough came in July 2019 when she won her first-ever WTA Tour title at the Bucharest Open, breaking into the world’s top 100 players in the process.
From there she went from strength to strength, breaking into the top 50 and eventually the top 20 with a series of impressive showings which were ultimately interrupted by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic which ground the sport to a halt for several months.
On Saturday, she will become the first player representing Kazakhstan ever to play in a Grand Slam final, and could become the first Russian-born star to win a Wimbledon singles title since Maria Sharapova shocked the world as a teenager in 2004.
What has Rybakina said about her nationality switch?
Rybakina has expressed no regrets in the years following her decision to switch nationalities; something which almost immediately made her among Kazakhstan’s most prominent female tennis players.
It isn’t uncommon for sportspeople – and particularly tennis players – to change from Russian nationality to Kazakh, such is the high quality (and perhaps large number) of Russian players both male and female, as well as due to the Kazakh tennis authorities offering attractive financial packages for Russia’s tennis exiles.
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“I’m playing for Kazakhstan for a long time. I’m really happy representing Kazakhstan, ” said Rybakina shortly after her victory against former Wimbledon champion Simona Halep in the semifinal.
“They believed in me. There is no more question about how I feel. It’s already a long time my journey as a Kazakh player. ”
That said, she maintains close ties to the land of her birth and is said to have a home in Moscow, but says that the nature of her training (not to mention the life of a touring tennis player) means that her life is a nomadic one.
But regardless of where she lays her head each night, Rybakina still enjoys significant support from within the Russian tennis infrastructure.
“It’s nice that Elena will play in the Wimbledon final, she is our product. Of course we will cheer for her,” said president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev.
“Everyone has the right to make their own choice. We will be supporting Elena, good luck to her.”
Is she the only Russian to switch to Kazakhstan?
Far from it. Rybakina is currently ranked as the top Kazakh female player. Next up? Russian-born Yulia Putintseva.
The top three male Kazakh players were all also born in Russia – Alexander Bublik, Mikhail Kukushkin and Dmitry Popko – with Bublik having a career-best Grand Slam showing en route to his third-round exit at Wimbledon this year.
Kukushkin, meanwhile, was one of the first to move to Kazakh tennis from Russia in 2008, and previously explain
ed his decision: “ At that time I was around 150 in the world and I was struggling.
“I was not in good shape in that moment, but I knew that I could play better, much better and I can get to the other level.
“But I didn’t have any opportunity for that. Unfortunately in Russia nobody was interested in me. Kazakhstan came to me and they provided everything, practice conditions, coaches.”
Why is Rybakina’s Wimbledon final potentially awkward for organizers?
Rybakina’s very presence in the women’s final will potentially be the source of unease behind the scenes at Wimbledon.
The controversial decision made by the All England Club to disinvite players from Russia and Belarus from this year’s event, which prompted fury from the WTP and ATP, was partly made with the intention of ruling out a public relations headache of celebrating a victorious Russian athlete in the midst of the country’s military action in Ukraine, for which the West expressed its contempt with a series of financial and – yes – sporting sanctions.
Nonetheless, a Moscow-born tennis star stands on the verge of an historic achievement on the pristine grass that the All England Club had hoped would be free from Russian influence, even if such propaganda was largely generated, and even amplified, by their own deeds.
The cherry on top of the saga? The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, is set to be tasked with handing over the trophy to the winner in a moment which Buckingham Palace’s press agents will no doubt watch nervously through their fingers.
What are Rybakina’s chances?
Seeded 17th, Rybakina wasn’t generally expected to get this far, and nor is she favored by the oddsmakers to triumph against third seed Jabeur. However, the Muscovite is in career-best form currently and will take to Centre Court with an air of confidence earned through her performances thus far.
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She will likely look to lay a foundation built upon her impressive power game which has seen previous opponents wilt against her strong serve, and seize any momentum which she can gain by putting Jabeur on the back foot.
From there, anything can happen.
It is worth noting that for all Jabeur’s talent, she has played just one seeded player on the way to the final – the 24th seed Elise Mertens, whom she bested in straight sets in the round of 16.
Rybakina will be Jabeur’s sternest test both on paper and likely in practice, and if Rybakina can pull off what would be a sensational victory, you can be sure that players, fans and tennis aficionados alike will be celebrating in two countries.
But Wimbledon would perhaps prefer if it was just one.