By Sudipto Ganguly
LONDON (Reuters) – In a year when Russian players were banned from Wimbledon, Moscow-born Elena Rybakina rallied from a set down to defeat Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur 3-6 6-2 6-2 on Saturday to become the first player from Kazakhstan to win a Grand Slam singles title.
With Russian and Belarussian players banned from the grasscourt major following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Rybakina would have been excluded had she not switched allegiance from Russia in 2018 for better funding and support.
But even if the repeated questions about her links to Russia during the past fortnight affected Rybakina mentally, it did not have any discernable impact on the 23-year-old’s game.
In a showpiece featuring two first-time Grand Slam finalists for the first time since 1962, the lanky Rybakina lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish after another power-packed performance to become the fifth different women’s champion in as many editions.
“It was such a tough match mentally and physically, so in the end I was just super happy that it finished,” said Rybakina, who became the first woman to win a Wimbledon final from a set down since Amelie Mauresmo in 2006.
The cool-as-cucumber Rybakina celebrated the win with barely a fist pump and just a fleeting smile in her typical demeanour.
“I need to teach her how to celebrate really good,” a smiling Jabeur, who attempted to become the first African woman as well as first Arab to win a major, later told reporters.
At her news conference Rybakina promised to show more emotion in future. But minutes later she broke down in tears when asked how her parents would react when they meet her.
“Probably they’re going to be super proud,” Rybakina said, before breaking down.
“You wanted to see emotion,” she added, wiping away tears as those present in the room burst out laughing before applauding her. “Kept it (inside) too long… “
Before Saturday’s final, Rybakina and Jabeur had met three times and each had won a match apiece before the Kazakh retired due to illness in Chicago in their last showdown a year ago.
World number two Jabeur also came into the contest on an 11-match winning streak — all of them on grass.
Rybakina’s booming delivery was supposed to be a key factor in Saturday’s contest but it was Jabeur who had less trouble holding serve in the opening stages on a sun-bathed Centre Court.
Jabeur’s ploy to mix things up with heavy slices and drop shots clearly upset Rybakina’s rhythm as the Tunisian landed the first blow with a break in the third game.
Stepping inside the baseline to punish her opponent’s second serve, Jabeur made optimum use of her slices during the rallies to slow the pace down.
Rybakina appeared to lose the plot while trailing 5-3 as she committed four unforced errors — including a double fault — to hand Jabeur a second break and with it the opening set in 32 minutes.
“I knew I have this big weapon, serve, but it didn’t work out for the whole first set. And Ons, she was using the serve very well,” said Rybakina, who was handed the gilded dish by the Duchess of Cambridge.
“I was just thinking that I need these big serves right now because if not, it’s going to be very tough.”
The match was, indeed, far from over and Rybakina looked a completely different player for the next 80 minutes.
Her red-framed racket was suddenly spitting fire while she demonstrated the agility to run down Jabeur’s drop shots despite her tall frame.
The momentum shifted in her favour as she nosed ahead in the second set with an early break.
Jabeur tried to match Rybakina’s power but instead her game unravelled. The drop shots started looking less clever as Rybakina also cut down on her unforced errors.
The Tunisian had three chances to level things up during a lengthy fourth game but Rybakina held firm and then broke Jabeur in the following game to take a 4-1 lead.
Three games later the 17th seed slammed down a 116mph ace to send the contest into a final set.
Rybakina surged ahead in the decider by breaking Jabeur in the opening game.
Known back home as ‘Minister of Happiness’, Jabeur by then cut a frustrated figure on court, screaming at herself in anger, despite enjoying the raucous backing of the crowd.
Jabeur got them more excited in anticipation of a fightback when she set up three break point chances in the sixth game but once again Rybakina shut her out.
The Kazakh won five straight points to win the game and then broke Jabeur again to leave the Tunisian burying her face in her towel during the changeover.
Rybakina appeared a bit nervous while serving for the match but then sealed the title on her first championship point as Jabeur sent a backhand wide.
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Ken Ferris)