Heading into the Wimbledon final, the focus was very much on Ons Jabeur. The Tunisian is an immensely likable character and has been a trailblazer for Arab and indeed African women. No other player from that part of the world has achieved nearly as much as Jabeur, in the men’s or the women’s game, with her only real competition coming from one-time world #14 Younes El Aynaoui. But in the end it was not Ons Jabeur who made history. It was Elena Rybakina.
No Kazakh player had won a Grand Slam either. The country has had several representatives in the ATP and WTA top 100 in recent years, a fair number, including Rybakina, arriving in Kazakhstan via Russia, but the country could not claim a Grand Slam champion. In fact, no Kazakh had made a Grand Slam final. So whilst Rybakina’s bid to make history was not commanding the same attention, it was no less significant for her country than Jabeur’s.
She played as if she were feeling the weight of that history in the early stages. Her powerful game had seen her storm through the draw at Wimbledon, dropping just one set en route to the final, but it misfired in the early stages. Jabeur, an excellent returner, was negating Rybakina’s biggest strength and she was struggling to compete with the Tunisian off the ground. But she found her range in the second set and from then on it was Jabeur who was on the backfoot.
Rybakina delivered a clinic in first-strike tennis in the second and third sets, hammering winner after winner past Jabeur as she completed a 3-6 6-2 6-2 victory. There were moments where Jabeur put her under pressure, not least in the sixth game of the decider when she found herself in a 0-40 hole. But Rybakina clearly trusted in her approach and was rewarded. The hot, still conditions also helped her cause, with Rybakina getting full value for her aggressive shots.
Her forehand, in particular, was excellent, whilst she also struck some fine backhands down the line. Jabeur, whose success is based largely on her variety, simply had the racket taken out of her hand. It was clearly a bitterly disappointing day for the third seed and world #2 who was the heavy favourite for most coming into the match. She will, however, be able to reflect on this tournament with pride when the dust settles and made history of her own even in defeat.
But the day, and the trophy, rightly belonged to Rybakina. Her reaction to her triumph was muted, a reflection perhaps of the awkward position she has been put in by her Russian-birth and residence in Moscow as well as how unexpected this victory was, but her victory was speech was gracious and humorous in equal measure. Her performance, meanwhile, suggests that this may well not be the last time she lifts a Grand Slam trophy aloft.
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