The current World No. 22, Elena Rybakina, caused an upset yesterday by beating 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in straight sets to make it to the quarter-final stages.
Elena Andreyevna Rybakina is a Russian-born Kazakhstan tennis player. Born and brought up in Moscow, the 21-year-old has grown in leaps and bounds since the start of 2020.
Backed by Nike and Yonex as a 16-year-old, Rybakina was a relatively late bloomer in the junior circuit. It was only after turning 17 that she started to make a name for herself in the ITF circuit, reaching two junior Grand Slam semi-finals and a Grade A title in 2017.
As an 18-year-old, Rybakina had no training coaches and lacked backing from the Russian Tennis Federation, leaving her looking for other alternatives at a very young age. The Kazakhstan Tennis Federation offered her financial support to change her nationality in 2018, which she chose over various other options.
After playing mostly ITF events in the first half of 2019 – winning three ITF titles – Rybakina began playing primarily on the WTA Tour in the second half of the season. Her first breakthrough came in July when she won her maiden WTA Tour title at the Bucharest Open. With this title, she broke into the Top 100 for the first time in her career.
Elena enjoyed her breakthrough year in 2020. With her four-year clothing and apparel sponsorship with Nike on the verge of expiring, German clothing and shoe manufacturer Adidas roped in the future star in early 2020. She led the WTA Tour in final appearances and had the second-most wins in the calendar year. She reached the finals of four out of the five events she took part in at the start of the season. She also advanced to the third round of the Australian Open.
Rybakina reached two more premier finals at the St. Petersburg Trophy and the Dubai Championships, finishing runner-up to No. 8 Kiki Bertens and No. 2 Simona Halep, respectively. At Dubai, in particular, she defeated two top-ten players, with No. 3 Karolína Plíšková the highest ranked player she has defeated to date.
Those consistent performances and final appearances helped her climb to No. 17 in the world at the time of the tour shutdown, becoming the first Kazakhstani player to break into the Top 20.
The lockdown came at the worst possible time for then 20-year-old, as Elena got stuck in Moscow and found herself no opportunities to train for two and a half months. When the tour did resume in August, in New York, she crashed out in the second round of the US Open. The Russian-born star could not carry her success from the first half of the season as she again failed in the second round of the rescheduled French Open.
The 21-year-old had an average 2021, getting knocked out in the Second Round of the Australian Open – her third consecutive 2nd round exit in Grand Slams – and a lowly 8-9 win-loss ratio. Already her best performance in a Grand Slam tournament, when she reached the Round of 16 stage of the ongoing French Open, Rybakina caused an upset when she defeated the seventh seed and 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in straight sets to make her first-ever quarter-final appearance in Grand Slam tournaments.
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“It’s difficult to expect anything, because you watch on TV and that’s completely different when you come on court and you feel the power and everything,” said Rybakina.
“I knew that the serve was going to be difficult for me to return. She’s powerful, but I was ready. Then after a few points I felt it comfortable, so nothing.”
“I am so happy with my match, it was amazing,” she added as she looks forward to locking horns with the 31st seed, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, for a semi-final spot.