Elena Rybakina has made it known that she wants to break into the top ten on the WTA Tour this year. After an incredible 2020, it’s only right that she sets such lofty goals for herself. The young Kazakh won two tour titles last year and looks like one of the rising stars on the WTA Tour. 2021 provides her with the perfect opportunity to insert her name into the Grand Slam winners conversation for years to come. Is she ready to win one now? Or will she suffer a second year slump? We take a look at what to expect from Elena Rybakina this year in our 2021 WTA Tour players to watch series.
Quiet Junior years hide star potential
Rybakina was never considered a standout at the junior level. The Moscow native did little to turn heads in any Grade A events. Additionally, she only made significant inroads in junior Grand Slams in her final year as a junior. In 2017, her final junior year, she made the semifinals of the Australian Open and the French Open. In both events she lost to the eventual winner of the tournament. Her ITF results weren’t much better and there was little to suggest she would be anything special at this stage.
She won four ITF events between 2014 and 2019, three of which came in the first half of 2019. The most noteworthy thing to happen to Rybakina in that time was her decision to switch tennis federations in 2018. At 19 years old, she gained Kazakhstan citizenship. The Kazakhstan Tennis Federation then offered her financial support if she would switch federations. She took up their offer and chose to forgo numerous opportunities to play collegiate tennis in the United States. After a relatively quite first half of 2019, Rybakina exploded onto the WTA Tour.
End of 2019 brings first signs of star potential
Rybakina failed to qualify for the French Open in 2019. At this point in her career she was ranked #140 in the world. Few, if any, had her on their radar for a breakout year which made what came next so incredible. Her first real success on the WTA tour came at the Libema Open in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. It was her first tour level tournament on grass and she made the semi-finals. After failing to qualify for Wimbledon, Elena Rybakina won her first tour title two weeks later.
At the Bucharest Open, the slowly rising star beat Patricia Maria Tig in her first WTA Tour final to claim the title. That win started what would be a strong run to end the year for Rybakina. Despite losing in the first round of the US Open, she made two quarterfinals, a semifinal, and a final in the seven remaining tournaments she played in 2019. This string of results saw her finish 2019 ranked #37 in the world. She climbed 138 places in the rankings in 2019, 104 in the second half of the year alone. She firmly established herself on the WTA Tour, but the young powerhouse wasn’t done yet.
Four finals, second tour title to start 2020
Any doubt about whether Rybakina’s run of form to end 2019 could be sustained was quickly erased with her scintillating run to start 2020. Her first five tournaments saw her make four finals and add a second tour title to her tally. However, if she hadn’t played so much tennis to start the year, she could easily have had a third. At the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships she lost to Simona Halep in an agonizing third set tiebreak in the last of her four finals. I watched that match, and the fatigue was evident although not obvious. The run she went on to start 2020 was incredible to watch. It’s fair to say that the suspension of the tour came at the worst possible time for a player in incredible form.
Rybakina didn’t return to the tour with same explosive streak she started the year with. However, she did make one more final at the Internationaux de Strasbourg. She lost to World #5 Elena Svitolina but her run saw her inside the top 20 for the first time. Rybakina possesses effortless power from both wings. She also has a monster serve, leading the tour in aces served last year. Her explosive hitting game makes her one of the 2021 WTA Tour players to watch as the new tennis year begins. The only question is, how much more winning can she do in 2021?
Early signs are good for another big year
If her start to the year is anything to go by, Rybakina looks set for another big year on the tour. She made the quarterfinal of the Abu Dhabi Open earlier this month. She lost to eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka. However, Sabalenka has won three tournaments on the bounce and is in the form of her life. Rybakina was also the only player to take a set of the Belarussian in the tournament. The six foot phenome is pretty much unplayable at her best. The sustained power she employs is more than enough to hit anyone on the tour off the court when she’s on.
If Rybakina can play at close to her best consistently in 2021, she’ll certainly add more titles to her collection. In fact, we’re confident she’s going to be in the mix for some of the bigger trophies on the tour. Her inevitable rise in to the top ten of the tour will be must see tennis this year. She’s certainly a dark horse in Grand Slams too, an exciting prospect given she is still just 21 years old. Her rapid rise makes the young star an easy addition to our 2021 WTA Tour players to watch series. Keep an eye out for her in the later rounds of the Australian Open next month, we’re fairly confident she’ll be there.
Main Photo from Getty.