Elena Rybakina was not even born when Serena Williams first played in Paris and, while being fully aware of the 23-time Grand Slam champion’s incredible track record, the 21-year old from Kazakstan was unfazed as she pulled off her straight-sets upset at the French Open on Sunday, winning 6-3 7-5.
The end goal is always to win the tournaments, and dream, and go of course to win the Grand Slam. So every time I step on court, I try not to think against who I play. Just try to do my work, follow the plan which we have. If it works well, I'm winning, and if it's not, I'm just learning from the matches. It's all experience for me. Elena Rybakina
Rybakina, the No 21 seed, was playing in her first-ever Grand Slam round of 16, while 7th-seeded Williams was contesting her 64th, the first of those coming at 1998 Roland Garros, a full year before the Kazakh was born.
Call it a changing of the guard if you will, but the result came as no surprise to those who watched Rybakina just before the pandemic struck, when she won 4 WTA singles finals and got herself into the Top 20 ranking.
“I’m so happy with the match today,” Rybakina said, in her post-match press conference. “Of course when I went on court I didn’t expect anything. I just had a set plan, which we discussed with my coach. I just tried to follow it. It worked out today.”
After giving birth in 2017, Williams set about equalling Margaret Courts 24 singles Grand Slam record but her efforts have consistently stalled despite reaching 4 major finals, in which she suffered epic shortfalls, while in her last five appearances she has not made it that far.
Coming into Paris, the 39-year old had played just 3 matches on clay, winning just one, but she was finding form and the draw was opening up in front of her when the top seeds tumbled out. It looked like this could be her chance.
“When I was small, of course I was watching her matches on TV, so many Grand Slams,” Rybakina said. “It’s difficult to expect anything, because you watch on TV and it’s completely different when you come on court and you feel the power and everything.
“I knew that the serve was going to be difficult for me to return. She’s powerful, but I was ready.”
Moscow-born Rybakina, who was only playing her second French Open and had not faced a seeded opponent, broke Serena twice in the first set and collected the opener 6-3, but the American broke serve and moved ahead in the second as the Kazakh’s calm took on a nervous edge.
Then Rybakina blasted a backhand that was clearly flying out, but the seasoned Williams couldn’t get out of its way and the ball hit her so she automatically lost the point.
Bent double, Williams reflected. Earlier she had hit the deck running wide and both incidents epitomised the unease she was experiencing as the pressure was building up, and her counterattack fizzled.
Rybakina’s 1 hour 17-minute upset came after the Kazakh won 8 of the last 9 points, having converted 5 of her 7 break points and winning nearly 60 percent of points returning the Williams second service, effectively quashing the American’s hopes for a Paris surprise, 6-3 7-5.
“I’m so close,” Williams reflected after Sunday’s defeat. “There is literally a point here, a point there, that could change the whole course of the match. I’m not winning those points. That literally could just change everything.”
Rybakina’s big serve and powerful forehand frequently proved too much for Williams, who did not play badly but lacked precision at important moments.
The young Kazakh moved ahead early, breaking to lead 3-1, and, although Williams responded with a break back for 3-4, she dropped serve again straight away and Rybakina clinched the set on her 4th chance.
The second followed a similar pattern, with Williams staying in touch with Rybakina but vulnerable every time her opponent found her hitting zone.
A final break for 6-5 proved the key, when a nerveless Rybakina converted on her first match point.
“The end goal is always to win the tournaments, and dream, and go of course to win the Grand Slam,” Rybakina said. “So every time I step on court, I try not to think against who I play. Just try to do my work, follow the plan which we have.
“If it works well, I’m winning, and if it’s not, I’m just learning from the matches. It’s all experience for me.”
Rybakina was rock solid and tactically-astute as she whistled 21 winners past a perplexed Williams, who was also philosophical after her loss: “It was good to finally get some wins on clay…I am in a much better place than when I got here.”
Her attention is already turning to Wimbledon just three weeks away.
“I’m kind of excited to switch surfaces,” she said. “But historically I have done pretty well on grass. I have done pretty well on clay too. Just not this particular season.”
In the last eight, Rybakina will play her doubles partner Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who followed up her victory over 3rd seed Aryna Sabalenka by knocking out 2-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka, 5-7 6-3 6-2, both from Belarus.
“[Pavlyuchenkova and I] also play doubles together,” Rybakina noted, and the pair will play their round-of-16 doubles match together on Monday. “We are a good team, good atmosphere.
“But for the [singles] match after [doubles] tomorrow, we come on court to work, and I’m gonna discuss again the tactics and everything with my coach.
“For sure, I have to serve well again because it’s my advantage, and then we’ll see how it goes.”
A quarter-finalist in Paris at age 19 in 2011, Pavlyuchenkova is into the final eight again less than a month before her 30th birthday thanks to a her victory over the No 15.
It is the 7th Grand Slam quarter-final of her career, and her first outside Australia in 5 years.
“Tough to remember what I felt 10 years ago. I’d say completely different. I’m very happy also now. I think I feel a little different. I feel like more mature. It’s a good moment, I’m enjoying it, but I’ve got work to do next matches,” the Russian said.
“I’m kind of in the present, where before I was like, ‘Oh, my God, quarter-final. Oh, what’s happening?’ When I was actually playing quarter-final, I was so emotional.
“I will never forget that match. 6-1, 4-1 up against [Francesca] Schiavone. I was just so in the emotions. I was like everywhere. I was too young. I didn’t know how to handle it. I think it was my first quarterfinal at a Grand Slam. Back then I was a little bit all over the place. I didn’t know how to handle it.
“I hope I show more maturity as well, smarter tennis, more consistent. I feel quite fit, as well, considering the fact that, like I’ve said, I’m not the youngest on tour now, but still feeling good. I’m also enjoying much more than before. I understand, I know what I have to do, I know what I want to do, trying to work for that.”
Pavlyuchenkova, who had lost to Azarenka 5 times in their last 6 meetings, with her only victory coming via retirement at the Western & Southern Open in 2015, found herself a set down after the first hour of play despite having led 3-1, but she broke Azarenka 6 times in the second and third sets combined to complete the comeback.
“[It’s] funny because when I was a set down, I was losing the first set, I lost it, the beginning of the second I was looking at my shoes, at the clay. I was thinking, ‘I hate clay so much. What I’m even doing here in Paris?’ I was saying this to myself,” she said, laughing.
Pavlyuchenkova struck 21 winners and 16 unforced in the first set, and combined for 24 winners to just 11 errors across the next two sets.
“I’m very pleased first of all because I won. I always say, I mean, a win is a win. I love winning no matter how. Sometimes, an ugly win is also good. But today especially was I think a very good quality match,” she continued.
“Me also coming back from being a set down where I also had a lot of chances in the first, I still found my rhythm back and energy to pull it through.”
Azarenka grew less consistent as the match wore on across 2 hours 9 minutes, hitting 17 of her 31 winners for the match to win the first set, where she also totalled just 6 unforced, but she hit more errors than winners in each of the second and third sets.
“Definitely I felt that I was a bit less sharp. I didn’t take my opportunities when I had them. The momentum shifted, for sure,” Azarenka said in defeat.
“There’s always some positives. The most positive thing I will say from this week, not the whole season, is that I’ve been able to play pain-free. That was my goal here. Everything else is something that can be reflected later, analysed.”
Azarenka also used her post-match press conference to criticise the French Tennis Federation for a lack of equality, with just one women’s match selected for what is supposed to be the marquee night session in the first week.
“What concerns me is when somebody from the French federation is continually trying to say there is equality, and only pointing to prize money, which is true,” Azarenka said. “Everything else, I wouldn’t even agree a little with that. And that’s disappointing.”