Elena Rybakin’s peak moment was again dogged by questions surrounding her Russian roots, leading to the newly crowned Wimbledon champion breaking down in tears as she made history as Kazakhstan’s first ever Grand Slam winner.
Moscow-born Rybakina, whose parents still live in her native Russia, came from a set down to beat Ons Jabeur 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 in the women’s final.
Rybakina, who pledged her allegiance to Kazakhstan for funding and development in 2018, was subsequently smothered by questions about her connection to the place of her birth after the biggest moment in the 23-year-old’s career.
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After celebrating the historic victory with a quiet, routine handshake at the net, which led to Jabeur joking that she would have to teach the new champion how to celebrate such a momentous occasion, Rybakina could no longer contain her emotions during her post-match press conference.
The star has been scrutinized about her nationality in every available media outlet during her run, avoiding questions about how much time she spends in the country, this time being asked to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin and the invasion.
“I didn’t choose where I was born. People believed in me. Kazakhstan supported me so much,” she said.
“Even today, I’ve heard so much support. I’ve seen the flags. So I don’t know how to answer those questions.”
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When asked to describe her parents’ reaction to her Grand Slam win, she became emotional and cried uncontrollably.
“They’re probably going to be super proud,” she said, crying.
“You wanted to see the emotion… he held it (in) too long.”
During a meeting with the media, the Wimbledon champion was asked if the Russian government would try to gain political mileage with her victory at home, to which she replied:
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s always some news, but I can’t do anything about it.”
“I have been playing for Kazakhstan for a very long time. I represent them at the biggest tournaments, the Olympics, which was a dream come true.”
Complicating matters for Rybakina is that Russia wasted no time in claiming the winner, with tennis boss Shamil Tarpischev hailing her win as a Russian triumph and describing the player as “our product”.
“It’s very nice! Well done, Rybakina! We will win the Wimbledon tournament,” Tarpischev said, according to Russia’s Ria Novosti news agency.
Rybakina chose not to discuss how much time she spends in Moscow, saying that when she is not on tour, she trains in Slovakia and Dubai.
“To be honest, I don’t live anywhere,” she added.
The only crime Rybakina committed was that she triumphed in a tournament where her Russian compatriots were banned after the invasion of Ukraine. The British government went out of their way to ban Russian and Belarusian players to avoid a member of the royal family handing the trophy to the Russian winner.
Still, at the end of the tournament, officials could not avoid the Duchess of Cambridge presenting the Venus Rosewater Dish to a player who was born in Russia and has lived most of her life there, even though she officially plays for Kazakhstan.
The moment led to much discourse online with tennis pundits highlighting the predicament facing the All England Club and the UK government more broadly.
“No one behind this decision (to ban Russian players) wanted to celebrate or see the sight of a Russian player lifting the trophy for Vladimir Putin to use as propaganda. It would be too intolerable,” Jon Wertheim wrote. for Sports Illustrated.
“But in Rybakina you have a player who was born and raised in Moscow. Her family still lives there. But she was able to play because she received funding from the Kazakh federation and changed her nationality.”
“As we’ve said before, we don’t begrudge Rybakin her decision and the ban wasn’t her fault, but there was something a little awkward about a player who is Russian in every way except her Wimbledon-winning passport.” it’s not Rybaka’s fault, it’s an overall decision.
“During the tournament she was measured and diplomatic when asked about the situation, probably aware of how politically charged it all was. We can’t help but feel for her as the flaws of the ban really showed on Saturday.”
Tennis reporter Ben Rothenberg agreed: “Obviously it’s very embarrassing after we banned the Russians from getting the #Wimbledon title holiday in Moscow, but in my opinion it shows a major Russian failure,” he tweeted.
“Elena Rybakina left Russian tennis because they failed to support and recognize her talent.
“Russia lost today. Kazakhstan won.”
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Since the inception of the WTA computer rankings in 1975, only one woman ranked lower than Rybakina has won Wimbledon – Venus Williams at No. 31 in 2007, despite being ranked No. 1 and having already won three of her five career Wimbledon trophies.
This year’s final was the first women’s Wimbledon final since 1962 between two players making their Grand Slam title match debuts and Rybakina admitted she was nervous at the start.
As she walked into the sunshine filling the 100-year-old stadium, she didn’t wave to the crowd like Jabeur. Instead, Rybakina tightly gripped the black and red straps of the racket bag slung over her shoulders.
And it was Jabeur who played better early on, handling Rybaka’s powerful serve and groundstrokes to break for 2-1.
Rybaka’s mistakes multiplied. Call the net, the whole court wide open. Netted forehand after Jabeur barely got a short return. When another forehand from Rybakin’s red racquet went awry, Jabeur broke at love and took the opening set, shouting “Yalla!” — Arabic for “Let’s go!” — and throwing an uppercut as she walked to the sideline.
Jabeur, a 27-year-old from Tunisia, went on a 12-match winning streak, all on grass courts, as she sought to become the first Arab or African woman to win a Slam singles title in the professional era that dates back to 1968.
“I’m just trying to inspire as many generations as possible,” said Jabeur, who saved a photo of the Wimbledon women’s singles trophy on her phone for inspiration. “I hope they’re not really disappointed, but I’ll try my best next time.
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In the second set, Rybakina, who beat Serena Williams at last year’s French Open, began to show why she leads the tour in aces in 2022, why, she said, “It’s effortless, the power I have.”
Her first break chance finally came after more than an hour and Rybakina made it 1-0 when Jabeur missed a forehand. After saving four break points in her next two service games, Rybakina broke again to lead 5-1 early.
“I didn’t play my best tennis, let’s say the second and third sets,” said Jabeur, who leads the women’s tour with 13 three-set victories this year. “She became more aggressive. I think she stepped on the court a lot more and put a lot of pressure on me.”
Rybakina hit flat forehands deep into the court, not quite allowing Jabeur to regain her rhythm, to start the third. There was one final crucial moment: Jabeur, who uses as much spin and slice and variety as anyone in the game, dropped a shot and lobbed into love-40 on Rybakin’s serve.
But Rybakina won five more points, aided by a couple of 119mph serves to go 4-2, then quickly broke again.
“Frustrating,” Jabeur said.
Not much later, it was all over.
“I didn’t know what to do. It was shocking,” Rybakina said, explaining that she didn’t hear half of what the Duchess of Cambridge said to her during the trophy presentation.
“Maybe one day you’ll see a huge reaction from me,” she said with a smile, “but unfortunately not today.”
Rybakina then admitted she didn’t expect to make it to the second week of the fortnight, let alone the final weekend.
She is now and forever will be a Grand Slam champion.
“It’s hard to describe how I feel right now. But for sure, I will remember these two weeks, especially today, forever,” said Rybakina. “I mean, it’s something I’ll never forget.
– with AP
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