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Rybakina gets going, again, and powers into first major final

  • Matt Trollope

Hitting serves at 196km/h and drawing gasps from the Centre Court crowd with her baseline power, Elena Rybakina overwhelmed Simona Halep to reach her first Grand Slam final.

Halep, the 2019 champion on a 12-match, 21-set winning streak at Wimbledon, was making a triumphant return to the All England Club after missing the 2021 event.

JABEUR: "Maybe something big is happening here"

But on Thursday, she was quickly down 0-3 and faced a point for 0-4, and was never truly in the contest.

Rybakina ultimately powered 22 winners past the Romanian champion – including her backhand return down the line on match point – to move into the title match.

World No.2 Ons Jabeur, also enjoying a career-best Grand Slam run, awaits on Saturday.

“I didn't expect that I'm going to be here in the second week, especially in the final,” said the 23-year-old, currently outside the top 20.

“I believe that I have a game to go far in the Grand Slams. Of course, I believe that maybe one day I can win it.

“I would say that today I really felt solid in my game and I think I did everything good.

“On the previous matches, I had many ups and downs moments. But today, even if I lost some points, I was really focused. In the end I'm really happy with my result.”

Sizzling start stalled

Rybakina is ranked 23rd, and at first glance, this could seem yet another example of a little-fancied player making a surprise run to a women’s major final.

Not quite.

Two-and-a-half years ago, it would not have been hard to envision the Kazakh in a Grand Slam decider – she was the tour’s hottest player in early 2020.

She won the Hobart International, one of four WTA finals she reached in the first six weeks of the year.

The fourth of those finals, in Dubai, came against Halep, who won the match – declared by a WTA fan vote as the season’s best – in a third-set tiebreak. 

Rybakina won 19 of her first 22 matches of 2020 and more than halved her ranking, from No.36 to No.17, before the COVID-19 pandemic intervened.

Professional tennis was suspended for almost six months, and Rybakina’s momentum was gone when it resumed.

“It was very tough because I was going just up,” she recalled. 

“I thought that I can play every tournament no matter how I feel. It was just going always my way. I felt really good. Everything was new for me.

“After corona, after this long period, it was very difficult to come back. During pandemic, I didn't practice at all. It wasn't easy.

“Then some health problems like injuries, sick, allergies. It kept on happening. I was, like, very upset, of course.”

Since reaching those four finals in early 2020, Rybakina had appeared in just two since – until now. 

There were no finals in 2021, although there were signs of a resurgence, and her undisputed talent, during that time.

Elena Rybakina and Serena Williams at net after their fourth-round match at Roland Garros
Elena Rybakina (L) defeated Serena Williams (R) 6-3 7-5 in the fourth round of Roland Garros in 2021. (Getty Images)

Rybakina defeated Serena Williams to reach her first major quarterfinal at Roland Garros, and came extremely close to the semis before being pipped 9-7 in the third set by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

READ MORE: After Wimbledon loss, Serena hints she's not done

She also just missed an Olympic singles medal in Tokyo, falling in a heartbreaking bronze medal match to Elina Svitolina.

Back on track

In 2022, her game is clicking again.

In January, she reached her first WTA final in more than 15 months in Adelaide, and not long after peaked at world No.12.

This fortnight she has beaten a succession of quality opponents including former top 10 player Coco Vandeweghe, rising teenage star Zheng Qinwen, and major champions Bianca Andreescu and Halep.

Her clean-hitting power on grass is reminiscent of Lindsay Davenport and Petra Kvitova, and it was breathtaking to watch her serve out her quarterfinal against Ajla Tomljanovic – she landed four powerful first serves, two of them aces, and held to love.

In fact, Rybakina has slammed a tournament-high 49 aces among 144 winners – she is averaging 24 winners a match – and has attained serve speeds of 196.3km/h, second only behind Coco Gauff.

Her expressionless on-court demeanour and poker-faced celebrations are perhaps at odds with her electrifyingly powerful game.

But she is nevertheless enjoying this career-best campaign.

“I mean, I'm smiling,” she joked during her press conference after stunning Halep.

“I can say that this is really first time when I enjoyed every day of playing and just being on the tournaments.

“I'm really happy. Now I understand that you don't have to be perfect every day to win matches and go far in tournaments.

“Only now probably I understand that I'm very close to be champion. If it's happens, it's great; if it's not, it's still great result for me.”