Elena Rybakina wins Wimbledon after fightback against Ons Jabeur

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·5-min read
Elena Rybakina wins Wimbledon after fightback against Ons Jabeur
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In a compelling clash of styles that pitted elegant power against endless imagination, it was Elena Rybakina who fought from a set down to defeat Ons Jabeur in the Wimbledon final. It is a result that will be presented as something of a nightmare scenario for the All England Club, who remained so defiant on their ban on Russian players only to have a 23-year-old born in Moscow but now representing Kazakhstan lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish. But to those watching on Centre Court, this was a thrilling spectacle riven with twists that were far removed from political propaganda.

Neither player had reached the final of a major before but Jabeur, attempting to become the first Arab and African woman to win a grand slam, had been the favourite in terms of support and expectation. She started in such a manner, utilising a dizzying array of slices and drop shots that left Rybakina caught in two minds, too urgent to attack and then too hesitant after a series of mistakes turned into a torrent.

But after a one-sided first set and as a rout beckoned, everything turned when Rybakina began to settle and the impenetrable serving and power-hitting that makes her such a potent force returned. She began to make sense of Jabeur’s tricks and eventually overwhelmed her, winning 12 of the last 16 games, dominating the rallies and eradicating any doubt as she sealed a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory.

Rybakina, whose parents still live in Russia but switched to Kazakhstan’s federation in 2018 for its better funding, had taken a formidable record into this final, with a remarkable 51 per cent of her first serves unreturned and having hit 144 winners, and any tension was eased by an emphatic opening hold. She attacked the corners, attempting to cut rallies short and avoid being drawn into Jabeur’s game. That strategy might have elicited some blistering shots but the risk also left little margin for error.

When Rybakina’s 120mph serve began to falter in the following game, Jabeur was able to go on the attack and cycle through her full repertoire of tricks, taking the sting out of rallies with wicked drop shots. Her variety was as delightful to watch as it was disastrous to defend, with Rybakina lacking rhythm and erring under the pressure all too frequently as a stray backhand sailed long to hand over the break.

Jabeur was playing with such confidence, it felt hard to imagine that this was her first grand slam final. She consolidated the break to love, pulling Rybakina to and fro at will, following up forehand winners on the return with sliced backhand passing shots that sent puffs of white smoke up off the line. Rybakina mounted a gutsy defence at 3-2 to avoid being broken for a second time but that defence always felt brittle. At 5-3, Rybakina’s frustration became more visible and her confidence wavered, snatching at the simplest of forehands before a double fault and two more errors handed Jabeur the first set.

Rybakina was in danger of being lost to the occasion, undone by her own mistakes as much as Jabeur’s brilliance, but she rallied at the start of the second set. Having won just four points on Jabeur’s serve up to that point, a fierce forehand return and Jabeur’s wayward smash gave Rybakina the early break. She had to fight doggedly to retain it in the following game, saving another break point with the sort of big first serve that had been custom this fortnight but was far more erratic here.

The momentum had turned though, and there was a spring in Rybakina’s step. She started to interpret the disguise on Jabeur’s slices and find that extra yard of pace to reach each drop shot, and when Rybakina came under pressure on her own serve again at 2-1, she held her nerve, saving three more break points in a game that lasted almost 10 minutes. Predictably, it was a service winner that finally hauled her over the line and it was pivotal in the match. The following game, Jabeur succumbed to a rare streak of errors, throwing her racket up in the air in disbelief as even her trusty slice betrayed her, while Rybakina’s forehand was gathering venom and accuracy with every point. She broke for a second time in the set to take a 4-1 lead and closing it out was a formality.

Rybakina carried that momentum into the decider. A forehand winner was initially called out but Hawk-Eye showed it had caught the line by a couple of millimetres and a deft backhand volley sealed the break. Jabeur was left crouching down in anger after Rybakina held serve to take a 2-0 lead, winning the battle of slices and beating the Tunisian at her own game. The crowd did their best to rally Jabeur and her box leapt to their feet after a brilliant drop shot helped bring up three break points at 2-3, but Rybakina refused to buckle, winning the next five points to hold. It would prove to be Jabeur’s final chance. The following game, Rybakina produced a series of bludgeoning but deadly precise forehands that Jabeur couldn’t deflect any longer. Power had won the day, but it was as much an art as brute force.

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