Elena Rybakina took to the baseline Saturday night with her game in complete disarray to face match point in the third round of the Miami Open. While Paula Badosa had built a wall on her side of the pitch and refused to make any mistakes, Rybakina’s unforced errors piled up to the heavens. She’d missed countless veteran backhands, she’d missed crucial drive volleys with the shaft, and her frustration was increasingly evident as she trailed 6-3, 5-4. Her short time in Florida seemed to be coming to an end.
Instead, they were reassured by the pressure of having a point from the loss. Rybakina played a sweet, angled cross-court winner to save the match point, and after another barrage of point-ending shots, the entire look of the match had changed. She suddenly beat winners from all parts of the court and marched towards a third set. Badosa vented her own frustration on her team by covering her eyes with her left hand before mimicking forehand and backhand swings with her right. The implication was that Rybakina swung blindly and the ball ended up in it by accident.
None of this was accidental. One of the most impressive developments this season has been the enduring quality that Rybakina has shown on many occasions. At her best, her shotmaking is outstanding. She possesses one of the most effective weapons in the game, her first serve, which she pairs with clean, destructive balls on both groundstrokes and an underestimated willingness to move forward and finish points at net.
In just nine months, Rybakina has positioned herself as one of the elite by winning her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, reaching the final of the Australian Open and capturing her first WTA 1000 title at Indian Wells. She has demolished numerous top players along the way, including Iga Swiatek twice and Simona Halep in her first Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon. Their game has sometimes risen to a level that few can match.
One could argue that these beatings against top players are not their most significant wins. Rybakina’s ability to smash through the best players in the world has never been in question, but the days when everything goes perfectly are rare for all players. Most of the time the players enter the court and work at their best. The key to sustained greatness is learning how to fight consistently and win the fights that weren’t necessarily meant to be won, which she gradually masters.
There are many other players gifted with weapons that can disembowel top opponents, but many struggle to capitalize on their strengths and make considered decisions on the pitch. One of Rybakina’s defining traits is her more conservative shot selection. Even when inside the baseline and on offense, she often tries to play tennis at higher percentages, choosing to push her opponents back by attacking cross-court rather than taking more risks by constantly changing direction and aim for the lines. Her game has an incredibly high ceiling, but her base is also improving every day, allowing her to be more consistent and resilient.
Rybakina won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon last summer. Photo: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
In a sport full of players who swing fists and cheer after every successful point, Rybakina is the most composed and low-key player on tour. Crucially, she has shown that she can remain calm under pressure as much as the image she projects.
Some of Rybakina’s greatest successes during this period came when she relied on her confidence and consistency to achieve difficult victories. After losing the opening set of the Wimbledon final, she shook off her nerves and recovered to win the greatest match of her life. In the quarterfinals of Indian Wells against Karolina Muchova a week ago, she was outplayed for most of the game.
But while Muchova mentally faltered at key moments, Rybakina navigated the match like a champion. She knew her own nerves would take the pressure and was extremely solid at every crucial moment. It felt like an even bigger breakthrough than her straight-set wins over the top two players, Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka.
On Saturday night, Rybakina’s confidence showed again as she completed the comeback from match point deficit in style. After playing so poorly and being a point away from defeat, the last 45 minutes of their 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 win were great. Raising her own level under pressure, Rybakina snatched the match from her bitter opponent. Badosa, who was 2nd last year, just couldn’t keep up.
As she continues to cement her Wimbledon title, excitement surrounding Rybakina is growing. Even in a sport as volatile and unpredictable as women’s tennis, every indication is that the 23-year-old is establishing herself as one of the best of her generation. Most importantly, despite the strength of her game and the coolness of her head, she’s hoping she’s taking the right steps to ensure she can stay at the top for some time.
Source : www.theguardian.com