Such is the nature of the international game these days that Russia-born Elena Rybakina fought back from a set down to beat Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, born in Croatia, to reach her first Grand Slam semi-final at The Championships on Wednesday, on only her second visit to Wimbledon.
I just try to do my best, focus on things which I can control: my serve, my shots, emotions. No matter what's happening, just to stay calm, keep playing point by point. Elena
Rybakina, who was born in Moscow, switched allegiance to Kazakhstan in 2018, and said she wants the war in Ukraine to end as soon as possible after becoming the first Kazakh to reach the Last 4 at a Major with her 4-6 6-2 6-3 victory on No 1 Court on Wednesday.
“It’s amazing! I am really happy I got through to the semi-final,” she said on court after the quarter-final match. “It was a really tough match but I heard all the support.
“I know there is some juniors here supporting me so thank you so much.
“Hopefully it will be the same, a good match and I will try play my best.”
A bout of COVID knocked her for six in February, while further illness robbed her of valuable match play in the lead-up to her 2nd Wimbledon main draw appearance.
It afforded Rybakina a degree of freedom, without the baggage of expectation, and she quietly but surely moved her way through The Championships draw, under the radar.
Now, the 22-year old will face 2019 champion Simona Halep for a place in the Wimbledon final on Thursday, counting her blessings that, despite being a Russian-born player, she escaped the ban on her compatriots.
“Everybody wants to compete. They were not choosing where they born. Of course, I feel for them,” said the 23-year-old Rybakina, who admits she was fortunate to have switched to representing Kazakhstan.
“I think it was very good timing, because Kazakhstan were looking for players. I was looking for some help. They believed in me. So I think it was very good combination.”
Standing at 6 feet, or 1.84 metres, the World No 23 is a big-hitter with a mighty serve, firing an event-leading 44 aces over 5 rounds so far.
The more experienced Tomljanovic, though, took the opener, before the Kazakh found her form, producing a fine display to make her way past.
The Australian found 2 marvellous lobs to break Rybakina in a 4-deuce 3rd game for 2-1, and did not face a break point herself en route to maintaining her lead to wrap up the first set.
Indeed, Tomljanovic conceded just 5 points on serve throughout the opener, and kept her unforced error count to a meagre 3, against her 9 winners.
When Rybakina double-faulted at the beginning of the second, it looked like the occasion may get the better of her, but a backhand winner brought more belief, and suddenly her shots started finding their mark on the lines.
Her improving serve, along with some judicious touch, proved the key to turning the match around, and she hit back, breaking Tomljanovic with an efficient drop-shot volley combination for 2-0.
After the Aussie levelled at 2-2, the drop-shot sealed another break for Rybakina to move up 4-2.
While breaks were being exchanged, aces were now a regular occurrence from Rybakina, and it was a matter of time before she forced the decider.
A wonderful drop-shot clinched another break and a 3rd ensured the crowd on No 1 Court were treated to another set.
She conceded only one point behind her first delivery as Tomljanovic struggled to keep up with the increased weight of shot, before Rybakina had reeled off 7 straight games from 2-2 in the second set to lead 3-0 in the third.
She continued to dominate to extend her lead to 5-1, at which point the insurance break turned out to be useful as a slew of unforced errors saw her fail to serve out the match, and when she reached match point on the Tomljanovic serve at 5-2, her forehand found the net.
Stepping up to the line a second time, though, Rybakina made no mistake and she did not have to hit a groundstroke to close out the match, firing 2 service winners and 2 aces past Tomljanovic.
Her 2nd match point was converted, fittingly, with her 15th ace of the day to bring the contest to a finish after one hour and 15 minutes of enthralling action in which her composure had never wavered, at least to those watching.
“I’m just a very calm person,” Rybakina said. “I’m not showing my emotions. It’s been always like this.
“Of course, I’m full of emotions inside. I just know that I have a match tomorrow, so I’m just trying to focus, forget already what happened now and just keep preparing for the next match.”
Later, Rybakina was asked whether she felt Kazakh or Russian, a sensitive subject at a tournament that this year barred players from Russia and Belarus due to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I was born in Russia but, of course, I am representing Kazakhstan,” she said. “It’s already a long journey for me. I was playing Olympics, Fed Cup before. I got so much help and support.
“For me it’s tough question just to say exactly what I feel.”
The 17th seed is now the only player of Russian origin remaining in the men’s or women’s singles draw.
She added that she felt for those who had been unable to play in a tournament stripped of ranking points after its decision.
“I mean, when I heard this, this is not something you want to hear because we are playing sport,” she said. “Everybody wants to compete. They were not choosing where they born.
“Of course, I feel it for them [Russian and Belarusian players] because everybody wants to compete at the biggest tournament, at Wimbledon. [I] just hope that next year is going to be back to normal.”
Asked about the war in Ukraine, she added: “I just want the war to end as soon as possible. Peace, yeah.”
On Thursday, she faces Halep, who hopes to recreate the ‘perfect match’ that delivered the 2019 Wimbledon title against Serena Williams.
The former World No 1 from Romania, who collected her second Grand Slam crown at the All England Club 3 years ago, dispatched American Amanda Anisimova, 6-2 6-4, on the Centre Court.
Meanwhile, for Tomljanovic, who had her Wimbledon campaign brutally halted in the quarter-finals for the second year running, it was a major disappointment.
The World No 44 started in sensational fashion to threaten Rybakina, but couldn’t maintain the charge in a thrilling battle of powerful hitting.
Tomljanovic delivered a near-faultless first set, before collapsing midway through the second, losing 7 straight games to fall from 2-3 in the second to 0-3 in the decider.
The gutsy Australian fought back from 1-5 down, saving a match point on her following service game, but could not pull off a remarkable come-back.
“It was a bit disappointing because I felt like I played a really good first set,” Tomljanovic said. “Actually one of the cleanest sets I’ve played all tournament.
“I felt like the middle of that second she definitely raised her level. She served crazy good.
“Yeah, just disappointed because I felt, like, with my game I was really there.”
Tomljanovic made 21 unforced error to 14 winners, while Rybakina made 28 unforced errors to go with her 34 winners , and had 15 aces to a single double-fault.
In last year’s quarter-finals, Tomljanovic was crushed 6-1 6-3 by eventual champion Ash Barty.
Having now taken over the mantle of Australia’s top player, she became the first Australian woman to make the Last 8 at Wimbledon in consecutive years since Jelena Dokic in 1999-2000.
It was a remarkable achievement after a slump in form in February this year, and her revival has her poised to again rise up the rankings.
In her press conference, Tomljanovic hit out at a journalist whose first question after her heartbreaking loss was about Nick Kyrgios, who is required to go to court in Canberra on 2 August to face a common assault charge amid reports he grabbed his former girlfriend Chiara Passari in an incident before Christmas last year.
Tomljanovic and Kyrgios previously dated for two years before breaking up in 2017, and she was taken aback, saying she wasn’t aware of Kyrgios’ ‘past relationship and the allegations’ when quizzed about her time with him.
“It’s been a while since our relationship ended,” the 29-year-old said. “Obviously, I’ve always kept my relationship very private. I would like to keep it like that.
“I’m definitely against domestic violence. I hope it gets resolved. But, yeah, I mean, I haven’t had that experience with him.”
Following the press conference, Tomljanovic hit out at the question on social media, saying the journalist should have asked her about the match first.
“Quite disappointing that after almost 2 hours of playing my quarterfinals that that was the first question the journalist chose to ask me, and never proceeded to ask anything match related. Glad to see headlines mostly about that now. Do better,” she wrote.
Rybakina, at 22, is the youngest of this year’s Wimbledon semi-finalists, which marks the first time in the Open Era that 3 of the Last 4 at Wimbledon are debutantes at this stage of a Grand Slam.
“It was very tough matches. I remember in Dubai I lost in the tiebreak, very close,” Rybakina said of Halep. “At the US Open also, there I was a bit injured.
“In the end I just know that I have to play till the end because she’s great fighter.
“No matter the score, just keep focusing on my game, on my plan. Just be more stable and also confident in some moments.
“The key, of course, is my serve, aggressive game. She’s a great champion. She’s moving really well, reading the game.
“I just try to do my best, focus on things which I can control: my serve, my shots, emotions. No matter what’s happening, just to stay calm, keep playing point by point.”