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“The pressure is off Rybakina a lot” at Wimbledon, says Molik

  • Matt Trollope

Elena Rybakina has encountered obstacles as she prepares for her Wimbledon title defence, but this does not mean she cannot thrive once again at The All England Club.

This is the view of former world No.8 Alicia Molik, who has watched plenty of the Kazakh play on grass – including one of her earliest career matches on the surface.

Rybakina has been flying in 2023, rising to a peak of world No.3 after titles at Indian Wells and Rome, plus finals at the Australian Open and Miami.

But her progress has been derailed by illness.

It means she confronts a race against time to be ready for Wimbledon, where the women’s defending champion traditionally opens play on Centre Court on the first Tuesday of the tournament.

It may sound counterintuitive, but Molik believes this scenario could in some ways benefit Rybakina.

"There'll be the hype from last year, so it's just how she handles that. That's all-encompassing and exhausting, the demands placed on her, from everyone and the media, with being the defending champion,” Molik told

“If she came into Wimbledon with a really clean set of results and was playing well, there would be this huge expectation that she's just going to run away with it again like last year.

Elena Rybakina beat Ons Jabeur 3-6 6-2 6-2 in last year's Wimbledon final to win her first Grand Slam trophy. [Getty Images]

“But on the flip side, perhaps because it's been so unusual and strange, and she's had to have more time off, and not enough time on the grass as she would like in a competition phase before Wimbledon, yes, she's the defending champion, but the pressure's off her a little bit I think. 

“Like, a lot. The pressure is off her a lot.”

Adding to that hype was former world No.1 Andy Roddick, who declared Rybakina his Wimbledon favourite in 2023.

“She’s the best grass-court player in the world on the women’s side. It’s pretty straight-forward,” he told Tennis Channel.

“Everything that is a (comparative) struggle for Ryabkina on clay, with the movement, slowing down her shots through the court, is additive at Wimbledon.

“I don’t know how you can’t make Rybakina the favourite.”

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His comments caught the attention of Donna Vekic – and served as added motivation – before the Croat beat Rybakina in the second round in Berlin.

But it emerged Rybakina was battling more than just Vekic.

Five days later, she pulled out of Eastbourne, suffering from the lingering effects of a virus which forced her to withdraw ahead of her third-round match at Roland Garros.

"At the French Open after I withdrew, I went back to the hotel and it was even worse so I had to stay in Paris for a few days, not leaving the room," she revealed.

"I started my preparation week after just slowly starting and it was tough since it was a virus. So I still think that I’m not 100 per cent physically where I want to be but slowly it’s getting better.”

She added that she had also “picked up another small issue” while competing in Berlin, explaining: “My team and I decided it would be better to recover this week and prepare for Wimbledon."

This all means that Rybakina returns to Wimbledon with just two appearances on grass since beating Ons Jabeur in last year’s final – a result that earned her a first Grand Slam singles title.

And of those two matches, just one was a win. Before losing to Vekic, she beat 139th-ranked qualifier Polina Kudermetova in Berlin’s first round.

Molik said that, beyond Rybakina’s comments, she was not privy to the state of the 24-year-old’s current physical condition.

But it was not time to panic just yet for a player she described as “phenomenal” on grass.

"In reality, she still has sort of two weeks' preparation for the 'pointy end',” Molik explained. 

“If you consider the week of qualifying (which she's not playing), the first week she has to play well but she doesn't have to hit top gear, given her seeding (means) she won't be playing anyone ranked higher than, say, 32 in the world. 

“So I sort of look at it that way, that time hasn't run out. 

“What she does have to her advantage, because she hits so big on the grass – it's just so damaging – is that if she is still feeling the side-effects or a bit of fatigue, the points do not last long. They're a couple of hits, especially if she's hitting her spots on serve and returning well; it's not going to be too taxing physically. 

“So it's probably the perfect surface and Slam for her to make a comeback on.”

Grass-court love affair

Indeed, despite her short playing history on grass, Rybakina has consistently excelled on it.

She has won 23 of her 31 career grass-court matches, including her very first five as she powered into the semifinals of ‘s-Hertogenbosch as a qualifier in 2019.

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Wimbledon qualifying in 2019 was just her second professional event on grass, with Molik – captain of Australia’s Billie Jean King Cup team – watching as she out-hit Australia’s Ellen Perez in the first round.

Rybakina went on to lose 8-6 in the third set of her final-round qualifying match against Varvara Flink, but Molik had already sensed her grass-court potency.

This proved astute. In 2021 Rybakina reached the Eastbourne semifinals and the second week at Wimbledon, foreshadowing her triumph at the All England Club 12 months later.

“What struck me was that she was tall, had a pretty flawless, amazing serve. Just really smooth timing and crisp hitting,” Molik recalled of seeing Rybakina face Perez.

“She's added a lot of strength, she's a better mover now. Her game on grass has developed; she's really comfortable moving forward, she's actually looking to do it more often. Her serve is just second-to-none on the grass, because it does have a little bit of a sneaky slice on it too... hurts a lot of opponents.

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“But (even then) she was a really sweet hitter of the ball. I think she's learned to take control of her swings a bit more… she's gotten a lot better at perhaps condensing them just to suit the surface and react quicker. 

“She had the same demeanour then as she had when she won last year. She was probably just as excited about beating Ellen as she was winning Wimbledon (laughter). It was the same reaction. Do you remember that? I thought: ‘oh, I wonder if she knows she's won Wimbledon?’ 

"It was incredible to watch her then. I thought, she's moving quickly, this girl. I think everyone knew it at the time.”