Who is Elena Rybakina? The untold story of a Russian-born Kazakhstani

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A result that few could have predicted, Elena Rybakina overcame all odds to lift the 2022 Wimbledon trophy. Her story is nothing short of inspirational.

Wimbledon 2022 was filled with high-profile players of all kinds. From the young and fiery
Iga Swiatek to the seasoned veteran Simona Halep and the crafty Ons Jabeur, the competition was fierce. Elena Rybakina is a player who soared under the radar, knocking out Simona Halep in the semis, followed by a convincing win over Ons Jabeur in the championship finals.

Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan

A tale born in Russia

Born in Moscow at the turn of the century, Elena Rybakina was introduced to the world of
sports through gymnastics and ice skating in her early years of childhood. Perhaps a blessing in disguise, Rybakina was told at an early age that she was “too tall” to succeed in ice skating and gymnastics. This sparked a bold suggestion by her father to try tennis, despite being an entirely different sport with a more competitive aspect to it. At the age of six, the young Russian held a racquet for the first time and began receiving coaching from elite athletes throughout her childhood years.

Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan

During her teenage years, Elena Rybakina was mostly trained in group settings for tennis and practiced only two hours a day. As her parents had insisted she attended a regular high
school, she often struggled to balance school work with training. This was especially true
considering she also had fitness coaches that would train her each day in addition to tennis
practice and schooling. Indeed, little Elena had a lot on her plate growing up!

Early success and Kazakh citizenship switch

Fortunately, the fruits of her labor eventually began to bear fruits in the form of junior career success. Beginning her career on the Junior ITF Circuit at age 14, it only took Elena
Rybakina her second tournament to secure her first junior title. It was not all smooth sailing though, as the young Russian began to have difficulties winning any titles in the years 2015 and 2016. Fortunately, Rybakina would end this dry spell in 2017 when she won her first Grade-A title in Trofeo Bonfiglio where she defeated the now world No.1 Iga Swiatek in the finals.

Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan

Upon turning 19 in the June of 2018, Elena Rybakina was approached by the Kazakhstan
Tennis Federation with an offer. Indeed, the stars had aligned in a moment where Rybakina
was in need of better financial support and Kazakhstan were on the lookout for a player that could put them on the map. This fateful encounter would ultimately lead to improved success for Rybakina whose financial burdens had been eased, allowing her to place more focus on her game.

In 2019, the Russian-born Kazakhstani secured three ITF titles including the Launceston
International which came with a generous prize reward of $60K. Later that year, Elena
Rybakina began participating more in WTA Tour events in order to gain more experience
playing at a higher level as well as to climb the world rankings. Her efforts eventually paid
off as she won the Bucharest Open for her first-ever WTA Tour title, propelling her into the
Top 100 for the first time in her career.

Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan

The years that followed saw a somewhat slowing down of momentum in the tennis world due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, Rybakina found a way to continue making progress through continued participation in WTA events and consistent results. The Kazakhstani had reached the finals of several tournaments including the 2020 Shenzhen Open and the 2020 Dubai Tennis Championships.

An ironic but iconic Wimbledon champion!

Elena Rybakina’s consistent results eventually saw her secure a second WTA Tour title at the 2020 Hobart International. This victory combined with the many finals she managed to reach saw her ranking propel to the Top 20, a historic debut for Kazakhstan. In 2021, Rybakina had a relatively quiet year despite reaching the French Open quarterfinals for the first time, but all this was to change as 2022 dawned.

Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan
Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan in action during the first round of the 2022 Mutua Madrid Open WTA 1000 tennis tournament

Receiving yet another runner-up prize, Rybakina began the year by losing to Ashleigh Barty in the finals of the Adelaide International, though this allowed her to reach a career-high ranking of No.12. The clay season that followed saw the Russian-born star fail to get past the third-round for several clay tournaments, including the Madrid and French Open. To make matters worse, Elena Rybakina’s poor results continued into the grass season with a couple of second-round exits.

As Wimbledon approached, Elena Rybakina was put in a unique situation following the
tournament’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from competing. Despite her
Russian ethnicity and history growing up in Russia, the 23-year-old was allowed to compete
due to her citizenship switch to Kazakhstani. The events that unfolded next were nothing
short of ironic, iconic, and most definitely a hot topic that has shaken up the tennis world.

Elena Rybakina has always been an aggressive baseline player with a stunning forehand and backhand that produces winners at will. Her ability to rally with the biggest hitters in the WTA saw her push out a win over Bianca Andreescu in the second round as well as Ajla
Tomljanovic in the quarterfinal. Complemented by her tall build, Rybakina backed up her
baseline prowess with dominance at the net, making it extremely difficult for her opponents
to pass her defense.

Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan

Just when it seemed it couldn’t get any better for the young Kazakhstani, she continued to
surprise us by defeating Simona Halep in straight sets in the semifinals. This was done in a
similar fashion to her preceding matches and most certainly did not stop when she took on
Ons Jabeur in the championship finals. Albeit a slow start when facing the Tunisian, Rybakina eventually found her rhythm in the second set and adjusted well to Jabeur’s unique playstyle.

Sealing the second and third sets 6-2 6-2, Elena Rybakina truly showed she is a force to be
reckoned with. At just 23 years of age, the Russian-born star from Kazakhstan had wielded
her maiden Grand Slam title and arguably the most prestigious of them all. Ironically, a
competitor of Russian descent had claimed victory in a tournament that disallowed Russian
players from competing. This, coupled with the quiet and timid nature of Elena Rybakina
who just so much as smiled lightly upon winning the Wimbledon championships has made
this an incredibly iconic win that will go down in history as something special.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Oh for goodness sake she is not a Kazakhstani. She is a Russian who plays under the Kazakhstan flag as they essentially bought her. Not that there is necessarily a problem with that, she is just looking after her own interests. But it doesn’t sound like she had a deprived childhood or overcame any particular difficulties, so I’m not sure what the story is.

    Whether or not the Russians should have been excluded from Wimbledon is another question. But there is no question that the Russian government is doing a very bad thing and ultimately everyone’s sympathies should be with Ukraine and the Ukrainian players, who as Marta Kostyuk said are wondering if their parents are still alive, not the Russians.

  2. Hi CLT. To represent Kazakhstan ultimately makes you Kazakhstani, especially after receiving citizenship. Not only that, but she had given up her Russian citizenship to do so, meaning by law you could not even call her Russian unless you are referring to ethnicity or birthplace alone. However, when discussing professional sports she is Kazakhstani as far as the WTA is concerned, whether you agree with that or not.

    On another note, nobody said she had a deprived childhood so I’m not sure what your story is. This is simply a spotlight article about Elena Rybakina and her journey so far.

  3. I have followed Elena for some time and saw early on that she had the potential to secure a grand slam victory. It didn’t surprise me at all when she won the title at Wimbledon. I’m wondering though when her next tournament will be. I’m worried she will get rusty without playing competitive matches.

    Also, not only is she one of the best players in the world, she is also one of the most, if not the most, attractive players in the world. Stunningly beautiful.

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