With a display of power tennis that made center court breathe, Elena Rybakina reached her maiden Grand Slam final with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Simona Halep. But the 23-year-old also gave Wimbledon a grim headache.
When the All England Club decided to ban Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s tournament, it was partly to avoid the scenes of the Duchess of Cambridge presenting the trophy to a Russian-born player.
However, following that performance, there is a very real prospect of Rybakina – who was born in Russia and represented her home country throughout her childhood before joining Kazakhstan at 19 – lifting the famous Venus Rosewater Dish when she takes on Ons Jabeur on Saturday.
If she plays as well as she did against Halep, she will certainly have every chance. The Romanian had won 12 straight Wimbledon games, including the 2019 title – the longest streak since Serena Williams won 20 straight games between 2015 and 2018. But here she was simply blown off the field.
“It was a great game,” Rybakina said. “Simona is a great champion. I was very focused today and very happy with my performance. Of course I was nervous because it was my first time on center court today, but the games before that helped me.”
Rybakina might have been nervous, but what mattered was that she could hide it with the skill of a summoner. She won the opening game to love, crashed three non-refundable serves along with a petite drop shot, then broke Halep in the next game to take a 2-0 lead. Another easy save followed and the Kazakh was suddenly three games ahead in just eight minutes.
Halep faced another break point the next time out but was at least able to stop the bleeding. Finding an answer to Rybakina’s powerful serve – high from a 6ft frame – and devastating groundstrokes, however, was an altogether trickier conundrum. A howitzer at 120mph earned the Kazakh three set points, and when a Halep forehand went into the tram line, she found herself in a set-up in 37 minutes.
If Rybakina’s power wasn’t troubling enough for Halep, she found her own game was starting to creak as well. Three double faults at the beginning of the second set put them on their back foot immediately in the break and then went 2-0 down.
The crowd sensed that Halep could go down without landing a punch. But Rybakina suddenly threw in a horror show of a service game, repeatedly shoving the ball off the field as she was heartbroken.
With the score at 2-2 in the second set, the audience sensed that the dynamic was changing. The problem was that Halep’s serve was still everywhere. Two more double faults followed as she was broken again. Rybakina, meanwhile, was balanced again. She hit three aces – 120mph and 119mph and a 96mph out wide – to take a 4-2 lead.
Halep kept fighting, but another double fault and a backhand error while down 5-3 allowed Rykabina to decide the match and become the youngest Wimbledon finalist since Garbiñe Muguruza in 2015.