Elena Rybakina has not been to Kazakhstan since April and the next time she will wear her country’s colors on her back will be in the Billie Jean King Cup in Glasgow in November. Although she still lives in Moscow, having switched her allegiance from Russia in 2018, her history-making victory in the Wimbledon final on Saturday will surely make her a household name in her adopted country. Moreover, her win against Ons Jabeur could also spark a surge of interest in tennis in Kazakhstan and inspire the next generation.
Being the center of attention is not necessarily something with which Rybakina is comfortable. Her non-celebration, unless you count blowing out her cheeks, at the end of the final was absolutely on point for the 23‑year‑old, who would happily just merge into the background if she could. The extra media attention after winning her first grand slam title is something she will have to get used to and how she deals with it could go a long way to deciding how she performs in the coming months as she comes to terms with her achievement and what it means for her, and for Kazakhstan.
“Well for now I can say that I’m not enjoying it [the attention] that much,” she said, a few hours after her triumph. “But maybe one day I’m going to be more relaxed because there is so much more attention now, but I just didn’t expect it.”
There is a bit of Petra Kvitova about Rybakina. Not just in stature; at 6ft, she is one of the taller players on the Tour, but Rybakina is also the youngest women’s champion at Wimbledon since Kvitova in 2011. Like the Czech, she’s not used to the limelight. Kvitova learned to accept it and eventually to enjoy it; Rybakina will take any advice she can get.
“Everybody is trying to help me because it’s the first time and there is so much attention,” she said. “It’s not easy for me, because I’m a calm person. I don’t really like to be in front of everybody. This part of the job is still tough for me, but hopefully everyone will help me improve in this, like I did in tennis. Let’s see. Hopefully it will get better and better.”
Her tennis, by contrast, does not need much work. One of the best servers on the Tour, she moves extremely well, her groundstrokes are punishing and accurate, and her ability to stay calm on the court means that when she is in the most pressurized situations, such as grand slam finals, she can come through.
Rybakina’s coach, Stefano Vukov, said the player’s temperament was one of the reasons he knew she would one day win a grand slam. “I was 100% sure she could win one,” he said. “She was calm in big moments. I saw that she has this gift. Everybody feels the nerves but she’s a very clutch player and she showed me that from the first tournaments she ever played, when the scores were getting close, she was always the one coming out of these close contests.”
The relationship between Vukov, from Croatia, and Rybakina has been instrumental to her success. When he first took over in 2019 she was ranked about 200 but had big dreams and big goals. “She came to me and she said, I want to be No. 1 in the world,” he recalled. “I was like, OK, take it easy a little bit. See if you can win an [ITF] $25,000. She wins two straight tournaments in a row, just to prove me wrong. I kind of saw that little competition between me and her, that it was working. I was trying to say you can’t do it. And she’s like watch me, I can do it.
“I saw from her that she really wanted to move fast. I told her: ‘It takes time, you’re not ready, be patient, don’t rush into things.’ I think that year that we finished No. 36, which was an unbelievable jump in eight or nine months. So there I saw that she just does not belong in a level of 100, 50, definitely a top-10 player one day and with the potential to win a grand slam.”
Rybakina will now become a target for others, which is pressure in itself. Vukov believes she can go on to become the world No. 1, in time; and she is equally confident in her abilities. “I always believed, I just didn’t know if it was going to happen or not,” she said.
“Many things were happening before and I wasn’t preparing so well for this tournament, but it has turned out so well like this. I’m super happy.”
Had there been ranking points on offer – they were removed in response to Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players – Rybakina would have risen to No. 7 and been set for a place in the WTA Finals. Nothing, she said, has changed.
“The goal for this year was to be top 10 and it’s still the same goal,” she said. “And to be in the draws for the grand slams and try to win another one.”