Moscow-born Elena Rybakina rallied from a set down to defeat Tunisia’s world number two Ons Jabeur 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 in an entertaining final on Saturday to become the first player from Kazakhstan to win a Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon.
With Russian and Belarussian players banned from the grasscourt major following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Rybakina would have been excluded from this year’s Wimbledon had she not switched allegiance from Russia four years ago.
But even if the repeated questions on her links to Russia during the past fortnight impacted Rybakina mentally, it did not have any discernible impact on the 23-year-old’s game.
In a final featuring two first-time Grand Slam finalists for the first time since 1962, it was the lanky Rybakina who lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish after another power-packed performance to become the fifth different women’s champion in as many editions at the All-England Club.
After the final, Rybakina said she feared she would not make the second week at the All-England Club.
“I did not expect to be in the second week of a Grand Slam at Wimbledon. To be a winner is just amazing. I don’t have the words to say how happy I am,” she said.
“I was super nervous before the match, during the match and I’m happy it’s finished to be honest.”
The big-hitting Rybakina, ranked a modest 23 in the world, had never previously got beyond the last eight at a Slam before this Wimbledon.
“I want to congratulate Ons for a great match and everything you have achieved. I think you are an inspiration for everybody.
“I ran so much, I don’t think I need to do fitness anymore,” the victorious player stated.
Jabeur was bidding to make history as the first African woman to win a Grand Slam singles title.
“First of all, I want to congratulate Elena and her team — great job and she deserved this and hopefully next time it will be mine,” said the world number three.
She then joked: “Elena stole my title but it’s OK.
“I love this tournament so much and I feel really sad, but I’m trying to inspire many generations from my country. I hope they are listening.”
Before Saturday’s final, Rybakina and Jabeur had met three times and both players had won a match apiece before the Moscow-born Rybakina retired due to illness in Chicago in their last showdown a year ago.
Rybakina’s booming delivery was supposed to be a key factor in Saturday’s contest but it was Jabeur who had less trouble in holding on to her serve in the opening stages on a sun-bathed Centre Court.
Jabeur’s ploy to mix things up 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 just 32 minutes.
But the match was far from over.
The momentum shifted in the Kazakh player’s favour as she nosed ahead in the second set with an early break.
The red-framed racket of Rybakina was suddenly spitting fire while she demonstrated the agility to run down Jabeur’s drop shots despite her tall frame.
Jabeur tried to match Rybakina’s power but instead her game unravelled. The drop shots started looking less venomous 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 next game to take a 4-1 lead.
Three games later the 17th seed slammed down an 116mph ace to send the contest into a deciding set.
Rybakina took the lead by breaking Jabeur in the opening game of the final set.
Known back home as ‘Minister of Happiness’, Jabeur by then cut a frustrated figure on the lush green lawns despite enjoying the raucous backing of the Centre Court crowd.
Jabeur got them more excited in anticipation when she set up three breakpoint chances in the sixth game but once again Rybakina shut her out.
She won five straight points to save the breakpoints and then broke Jabeur again to leave the Tunisian, who was attempting to become the first African woman as well as the first Arab to win a major, 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.
The cool-as-cucumber Kazakh celebrated the victory with barely a fistpump and just a fleeting smile.