Kazakstan’s Elena Rybakina upset the apple-cart by beating 3rd-seeded Ons Jabeur on a sunny Centre Court on Saturday in the Ladies Singles Championship final, 3-6 6-2 6-2, bringing AELTC organisers’ greatest nightmare to life as HRH The Duchess of Cambridge presented the Venus Rosewater Dish to the Moscow-born 23-year old.
Words can't say how happy I am. I never felt anything like this. To be a winner is just amazing, I don’t have the words to say how happy I am. I wouldn’t be here without my team. I appreciate him [the Kazakhstan tennis president] coming to support me in the semi-final and final, it’s unbelievable support. I want to say a big thanks to my whole team — the most important is my parents, of course, but they are not here. I am very sorry. My sister is here. Without my parents, I wouldn’t be here. Elena Rybakina
There is no question that the better player prevailed on the day, but Rybakina’s coolness on landing the most prestigious title in tennis astonished onlookers.
“I’m always very calm,” explained Rybakina later. “Maybe because I believed that I can do it, deep inside.”
There were tears later, though, after all the pomp and circumstance, in her media call where, yet again, she fielded questions about her nationality.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Rybakina, who has represented Kazakhstan after switching allegiances in 2018, and was asked if the Russian government would politicise her Grand Slam triumph.
“It’s always some news, but I cannot do anything about this.
“I didn’t choose where I was born. People believed in me. Kazakhstan supported me so much.
“Even today, I heard so much support. I saw the flags. So I don’t know how to answer these questions.
“I’m playing for Kazakhstan a very long time. I represent them on the biggest tournaments, Olympics, which was a dream come true.”
Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpischev, though, has already hailed Rybakina’s victory as a triumph for Russia, describing the player as ‘our product.
“It’s very nice! Well done Rybakina! We win the Wimbledon tournament,” Tarpischev was quoted as saying by Russian news agency, Ria Novosti.
Rybakina’s parents live in Moscow but were unable to come to London to watch their daughter play, and she has been reluctant to elaborate on how much time she spends in the country.
Towards the end of her news conference, she wept when asked to describe her parents’ reaction to her Grand Slam win.
“Probably they’re going to be super proud,” she said as the tears came. “You wanted to see emotion… kept it too long.”
Rybakina had celebrated her first Grand Slam triumph with a low-key, routine handshake at the net, prompting Jabeur to tease her later that she would have to teach the new champion how to celebrate such a momentous moment.
Admitting to stage fright in the first set on Saturday, when she dropped serve twice and committed 17 unforced errors, Rybakina composed herself to romp through the next two sets, winning 12 of 16 games.
“Today I was too stressed out,” she said. “I think I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should maybe. I enjoyed more the semi-final.”
While she has earned a cool $2.4 million for Saturday’s victory, she is more thrilled to become a honorary life member of the All England Club.
For Jabeur, though, what started so promisingly, later unravelled.
The 27-year-old, a Muslim, was the first Arab and the first African woman to make a Grand Slam final, and she felt destined to land the Wimbledon title on, Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice.
The final had promised to be a contest of contrasting styles, the Magician’s craftiness against the power of the Kazakhstani.
Early on, Jabeur’s finesse prevailed, and she drew first blood, forcing a nervy Rybakina to hit from deep in the court, and struggling with her forehand.
In the 4th game, she sliced her way past Rybakina, who had closed in at the net and, a game later, she jumped on a second serve, and sent a searing forehand that had the Kazakh back-pedalling.
Rybakina avoided going down a double break, coming up with big serves and forehands to save 2 break points and hold in game 5, but a bad forehand miss handed Jabeur 3 set points, and the Tunisian needed just one to win the opening set in 32 minutes.
Jabeur celebrated prematurely when she pocketed the opener, only to lose her cool when she was broken early in the second, as Rybakina found her nerve and her timing to produce a sensational forehand winner for 2-0.
Digging deep to hold for 1-2, it felt like Jabeur might level, but Rybakina staved off 3 break points in a lengthy 4th game to maintain her gap, the ice-cold Kazakhstani breaking again and extending her lead to 5-1 before comfortably serving out the set.
As Rybakina dispelled her early jitters, she had begun to fire her first serve with increasing penetration, while the forehands that had sailed long at the start, were now finding their mark in corners and on the edges of the lines with deadly accuracy.
She also charged the net to close out points, often lured in by Jabeur’s drop-shots, and sealed the set with an ace that the Tunisian could only stare at.
As the tide turned, Jabeur looked all at sea, uncertain now as to how to regain the momentum when Rybakina pounced on her serve at the start of the decider to stamp her authority.
Jabeur so often has bounced back after such a wobble, but this one proved fatal, perhaps being a set away from becoming Wimbledon champion suddenly invading her focus as the ease and steadiness that she had displayed in the first set evaporated.
The 3rd set brought more uncertainty, even when Jabeur had 3 chances to even the set midway through, but she couldn’t finish the game, and Rybakina cruised over the finish line from there.
Nothing was going to stop Rybakina winning Wimbledon this year – not Jabeur, nor the edict from the government to keep players from Russia from participating.
On the final point, Rybakina watched Jabeur, the No 2 ranked player in the world, send one last backhand return wide, and strutted to the net with barely a celebration.
Commentator John McEnroe said on BBC TV: “I don’t mean to get into politics but she’s Russian. Her parents live in Moscow.”
Host Sue Barker, who is presenting her final Wimbledon after 30 years, tried to play down the comments by referencing Greg Rusedski’s switch from Canada to Great Britain, but social media piled in with an array of posts referencing the same twist of fate, including a picture of Rybakina in a Russia tracksuit.
“It’s funny, you ban individual Russian players from competing, yet a Russian wins the title,” one posted.
A few minutes later Rybakina climbed the stairs to her box to embrace her team before the Duchess, resplendent in a bright yellow dress, presented her with the Venus Rosewater Dish on the Centre Court in the oddest of post-match trophy ceremonies, a photo opportunity the Club, and the government, had tried so hard to avoid.
“Words can’t say how happy I am,” said Rybakina after her victory, adding that it had been an honour to play in front of the Royal Box and thanking Bulat Utemuratov, the billionaire who is the President of the Kazakhstan Tennis federation for believing in her. “I never felt anything like this.”
“To be a winner is just amazing, I don’t have the words to say how happy I am. I wouldn’t be here without my team.
“I appreciate him [the Kazakhstan tennis president] coming to support me in the semi-final and final, it’s unbelievable support.
“I want to say a big thanks to my whole team — the most important is my parents, of course, but they are not here. I am very sorry. My sister is here. Without my parents, I wouldn’t be here.”
The smiling Duchess of Cambridge, standing a few feet away, was accompanied onto the court by Ian Hewitt, the Chairman of the All England Club, and the man in charge of explaining the decision to bar Russian and Belarusian players back in April.
It was the Rybakina, the 23rd-ranked player in the world, who had never before this week advanced past the quarter-final of a Grand Slam tournament, who was the last player standing – tall, long and powerful, with one of the most dangerous serves in the game, born in Russia and who lived there until she became an adult and still calls Moscow, home.
Her run to the final made for an awkward Championships, bringing politics into the fray after organisers had tried to keep them at bay by barring Russian and Belarusian player because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The decision resulted in criticism, the stripping of ranking points, a hefty fine from the WTA and embarrassment.
As for Jabeur, it will take time for the ‘Minister of Happiness’ to regain her mojo.
“I feel really sad, but it’s tennis,” Jabeur said, while holding the runner-up trophy. “There is only one winner.
“I’m trying to inspire many generations for my country.”
The British Embassy in Tunisia says it will investigate after Jabeur told the BBC website that family members did not have visas to watch her play in the final on Saturday.
Her brother, Hatem, though, was in her player box with her team.
”But unfortunately the other members of my family don’t have visas,” she reported on Friday. “It will be tough for them but they will be cheering for me back home.”
On its official Twitter feed, the British embassy in Tunis said it was cheering Jabeur on: “We’re sorry to hear that your parents and sister aren’t able to be there to support you, and we will look into what happened,” it said.
Jabeur admitted she had not played her best tennis in the second and third sets as the big-hitting Kazakhstani found her range.
“It is frustrating to play someone that serves really big and doesn’t give you the chance sometimes to take that break,” she said.
“I just kept telling myself, like, ‘this is not over, I trust you’. I even said, ‘I love you’ to myself during the match. It wasn’t meant to be.”
The 27-year-old, who had previously never gone beyond the quarter-finals at a Major, said she would learn from her experience at Wimbledon.
“I don’t disbelieve in myself, and I know that I’m going to come back and win a Grand Slam, for sure,” she told reporters. “This is tennis, and it’s part of it.
“I have to learn from it, definitely. But I’m very, very positive about it.”
The player, labelled by Tunisians as the ‘Minister of Happiness’, added she had given everything during her run at the All England Club.
“Of course, I will leave happy, with a smile, big smile always,” she said. “Tennis is just a sport for me. The most important thing is that I feel good about myself.”
In closing, Jabeur wished her fellow Muslims a Happy Eid in her post-match interview on court.
Meanwhile, Rabkina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion, received congratulations from celebrities and dignitaries as she became the first player to win a Grand Slam singles title for Kazakhstan, female or male.
Qasym-Jomart Toqayev, the President of Kazakhstan, congratulated Rybakina on her historic achievement: “Kazakhstani tennis player Elena Rybakina has won a historic victory in the most prestigious Wimbledon tournament,” Toqayev tweeted. “I sincerely congratulate our athlete!”
The 23-year-old collected even more plaudits on social media from tennis superstars. As she said: “I didn’t choose where I was born.”