Wimbledon: Elena Rybakina, the disturbing finalist

Wimbledon: Elena Rybakina, the disturbing finalist

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His final winning backhand return left the Center Court almost silent. As if stunned by so much power, precision and the surprise of seeing a former champion, Simona Halep, swept away by a player still relatively unknown to the general public. At Wimbledon, Elena Rybakina is living (for the moment at least) the fortnight of her life: the 23rd player in the world will play her first Grand Slam final on Saturday against Ons Jabeur, much more expected at this stage, on the Center Court.

And it is probably not only on the Center Court that the silence has been made. Among those responsible for organizing the tournament at the All England Club, there was probably no question of sighs of admiration but of a certain embarrassment. Because if Elena Rybakina’s passport has mentioned Kazakhstan since 2018, the player was indeed Russian before her naturalization. However, Wimbledon banned the compatriots of Vladimir Putin and the Belarusians because of the war in Ukraine so as not to give them visibility.

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I am very happy to represent Kazakhstan, they believed in me

But what fundamental difference is there between a Rybakina and other Russians expatriated all year round on the circuit? Inevitably, the subject came up again at a press conference. Does she represent Russia in any way? Does she feel Russian?

I already answered this question. As I said, I have been representing Kazakhstan for a long time and I am very happy about it. They believed in me and there is no more questioning about it in me. It doesn’t date from yesterday: I participated in the Olympic Games under the Kazakh banner, the Fed Cup too. What does it mean to you to feel Russian? I play tennis and enjoy my time here. I have empathy for the players who couldn’t come here. But I’m having fun here on one of the biggest tennis stages in the world and trying to do my best.“, replied Rybakina between sincerity and embarrassment.

And for good reason, it is difficult for the native of Moscow to deny her ties with Russia. A mystery remains on his current place of residence. Does she still live in the Russian capital? “I think I live on… the circuit because I travel a lot. I train in Slovakia between tournaments and have had training camps in Dubai too“, she kicked again. Her story is not so surprising and resembles that of many of her new compatriots, like Mikhail Kukushkin for example, the first to have taken the step of naturalization in 2008 .

Means against naturalization and rapid results

After having tried gymnastics and figure skating – disciplines for which she was already considered too big at 3 or 4 years old -, Elena Rybakina started playing tennis in Moscow at the age of 5. Gifted, she joined the Spartak Club, a group of promising Russian players trained by Andrei Chesnokov, until she shone among the juniors. But to start as a professional, she lacked the means.

She could have studied and played tennis in a university course in the United States, but Rybakina therefore preferred the proposal made by the Kazakh tennis federation to accompany her in her early career. She was thus able to benefit from ideal facilities to be able to train and progress. The only counterpart was to agree to be naturalized. President of the Kazakh Tennis Federation and billionaire according to Forbes magazine, Bulat Utemuratov, who also made the trip to Wimbledon to support the player, played a big role in this affair.

And this fundamental choice did not take long to bear fruit. A year after his naturalization, Rybakina was voted revelation of the 2019 season by the WTA thanks to his impressive progression from 186th to 37th place in the world, with a first final on the WTA circuit in Nanchang and a first title in Bucharest. Before starting the next exercise on a high note with four finals in five tournaments including a new coronation in Hobart. Finally, only the emergence of the Covid then thwarted its ascent.

No political message to fear, but an avoidable controversy

It was really hard because I felt like everything was working out for me. But after the hiatus, it was really difficult to come back, especially since I hadn’t been able to train during the pandemic. And I chained the glitches: injuries, illnesses, allergies. I was very destabilized but my coach told me that, regardless of my physical condition, I had to keep working to progress. And besides, I’m not 100% physically in this tournament, I will have to continue working afterwards to prepare well for the American tour.“, she further explained.

Despite his great serve and his ease in stacking winning shots, Rybakina had not done better than a quarter-final at Roland-Garros last year in a Grand Slam before this fortnight. Already surprised to find herself in the second week for the third time in her career in Majors, the 23rd player in the world is all the more surprised to play the final. Without preparation and without any particular expectations before the tournament, she finally played more relaxed than usual while taking advantage of the absence of the Russians and Belarusians in the draw to chart her course.

What if this carelessness and relaxation allowed him to lift the trophy on Saturday? “If that happens, fine. Otherwise, it’s always a good result for me. When I was a kid, I didn’t think I would ever be here, because I didn’t decide to turn professional until I was 17-18..” There will therefore be no message of a political nature to fear for the All England Club, but the damage is done for the organization whose inanity of the decision has been more than underlined by this unexpected scenario. an ironic wink of fate that some might call a just backlash.

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