The high-risk style that makes reluctant Wimbledon favourite Elena Rybakina unbeatable

Rybakina is heavy favourite to win her second Wimbledon title this weekend after blazing past Elina Svitolina in the quarter-finals thanks to a ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-her’ playing style

Luke Baker
on Centre Court
Wednesday 10 July 2024 17:51
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Elena Rybakina is into another Wimbledon semi-final
Elena Rybakina is into another Wimbledon semi-final (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

The Elena Rybakina experience rarely lasts long. Which is not to say you don’t get value for money when watching the Kazakh star – quite the opposite. She's a whirling dervish of entertainment.

It's just that, especially on grass, she has no interest in engaging in long rallies, preferring a “no guts, no glory”, “blink-and-you’ll-miss-her” approach to most points which means the winner and unforced error counts both ratchet up pretty quickly. When she’s more hit than miss – as she was en route to the Wimbledon title in 2022 and appears to be again this year – it’s tough to work out how to stop her.

Elina Svitolina tried in this quarter-final, she really did, but her opponent’s point-ending flashes of racquet were generally finding the lines rather than the grass beyond. Combined with a ferocious serve that pumped down six aces to reach a tournament-high total of 31 and saw her win 84 per cent of points on first serve, the result was a ruthless 6-3, 6-2 win in just 61 minutes.

Svitolina – the Ukrainian star who spoke so movingly and eloquently about the war in her home country following her fourth-round win – was the crowd favourite, but found herself overmatched against the Rybakina arsenal.

The 29-year-old had confirmed before the match that she was happy to shake hands with her Moscow-born-and-raised opponent, despite refusing to do so when facing Russian or Belarusian tennis adversaries, due to Rybakina’s decision in 2018 to represent Kazakhstan. “She changed her nationality, so it means she doesn’t want to represent her original country, so it works,” Svitolina explained.

After no handshake drama, there appeared to be a danger of no drama at all when the match started in a subdued manner. Perhaps the news of Alex de Minaur’s withdrawal, denying the Centre Court crowd a fascinating battle between the Australian and Novak Djokovic that was scheduled to follow, deflated supporters but whatever the reason, the atmosphere felt flat, even as the players traded early breaks.

There was no handshake drama between Elena Rybakina and Elina Svitolina
There was no handshake drama between Elena Rybakina and Elina Svitolina (PA)

To her credit, Rybakina slowly began to warm them up thanks to her powerful hitting and aggressive approach. There were nine winners and seven unforced errors from the Kazakh through the first five games alone, while Svitolina had just two and one of each respectively.

The fourth seed then broke to love to make it 5-3 and served the set out with minimal fuss, sealed with an ace, after just 31 minutes. The second set would be an even quicker affair as the match barely breached the hour mark – two further breaks of serve from the 2022 champion doing the job as she brutally ground her opponent down. The final tally of 26 winners and 15 unforced errors showed just how attacking she was prepared to be. Svitolina’s tallies of eight apiece never gave her a chance.

At the moment, it is hard to make the case for anyone other than Rybakina lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish for a second time on Saturday, two years after her first triumph. The obliteration of almost all the other top seeds has opened up the women’s singles draw spectacularly for her.

Rybakina’s serving was brutally effective
Rybakina’s serving was brutally effective (Getty)
Rybakina won the Wimbledon women’s singles title in 2022 and could do so again on Saturday
Rybakina won the Wimbledon women’s singles title in 2022 and could do so again on Saturday (AP)

Defeats for the likes of Iga Swiatek, Coco Gauff, Jessica Pegula, Marketa Vondrousova and Emma Raducanu – plus Aryna Sabalenka’s pre-tournament withdrawal – have left Rybakina as the last big gun standing and the overwhelming favourite. Of the other three women remaining, Jasmine Paolini had never won a match on grass before this summer, Donna Vekic is into her first grand slam semi-final at the 43rd time of asking and her last-four opponent Barbora Krejcikova has advanced beyond the fourth round at Wimbledon for the first time.

When asked in her post-match interview, how she felt being the favourite, Rybakina laughed: “I don’t really like it to be honest.”

It’s probably time she gets used to it. With a grass-court pedigree that far outweighs any of the other remaining contenders and a game currently firing on all cylinders, that second Wimbledon title appears tantalisingly within her grasp.

*****************************************************************

Rybakina will face Barbora Krejcikova in Thursday’s semi-final after Latvian livewire Jelena Ostapenko blew herself out, allowing the Czech star to reach her first Wimbledon semi-final.

Ostapenko had blitzed her way through the women’s draw, dropping only 15 games in four matches with a ferocious flurry of winners. But when the unforced errors started to creep well above the winner count on Court 1, Krejcikova was able to take advantage.

A blink-and-you-miss-it quarter-final encounter did not feature a rally of more than eight shots but Krejcikova made hers count in a 6-4 7-6 (4) victory to set up a last-four showdown with Rybakina.

“I don’t have the words right now,” she said after victory. “I was so much into the game I told myself I’m going to give it everything I have and I’m really happy that I did. It’s an unbelievable moment for me.”

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