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Will Russia try to politicize Elena Rybakina’s victory at Wimbledon?

WIMBLEDON, England — Winning Wimbledon for the first time barely seemed to register with Elena Rybakina.

Match point secured against Ons Jabeur, Rybakina clenched her left fist lightly, wiped her mouth with her bracelet, expelled a breath and walked to the net to shake hands with a crestfallen Jabeur, then waved at the crowd with as urgent as Queen Elizabeth greets the hoi polloi through her car window.

Rybakina was, of course, smiling after her victory, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, but for a 23-year-old whose career had just been transformed by a stunning title run, it was understated. valued. even by English standards.

“She wins the trophy for least emotional Slam victory,” said nine-time Wimbledon singles champion Martina Navratilova.

But it should come as no surprise that Rybakina’s feelings are simply hidden, and a few hours later, after posing with the golden dish awarded to the champion, he was asked at his press conference how his parents might react to his victory. when she finally got the chance to talk to them.

“Probably, they’re going to be super proud,” she said, starting to cry.

“You wanted to see the emotion,” she said, struggling to regain her composure. “I kept it too long.”

It was a poignant moment, more emotional, to be honest, than anything that happened on Center Court on Saturday, the Shakespearean scene of so many breakthroughs and breakdowns over the decades, including Jana Novotna’s crying over Duchess of Kent’s shoulder after blowing a lead against Steffi Graf in the 1993 final.

History, all those ghosts on the grass, can hit a player hard as he tries to join the club, and Rybakina and Jabeur certainly had to fight their way through the early nervousness when they both played in their first Grand Slam final.

True stylistic difference is rare in the big games of women’s football, but Rybakina v Jabeur provided plenty of contrast as they explored the backcourt and forecourt of tennis’ most famous scene.

Rybakina, a lean and leggy 6-footer who represents Kazakhstan, has intimidating power and a first and second serve that can reach speeds that would be suitable for the men’s tour.

Jabeur, a stockier and much shorter Tunisian, is a creative force: he walks casually up the pitch between points and favors drop shots and abrupt changes of pace once they start.

But strength would outweigh finesse in this new final: the first at Wimbledon between two major women’s singles finalists since 1962, when Karen Susman of the United States defeated Vera Sukova of Czechoslovakia.

“I didn’t play my best tennis, let’s say, in the second and third sets,” Jabeur said. “She started to be more aggressive. I think she stepped in a lot more on the pitch and put a lot of pressure on. That, I have not found a solution for unfortunately today.

Rybakina’s ability to navigate the big points with poise and quick serves was remarkable and never more useful than when she escaped a 0-40 deficit by serving at 3-2 in the third set.

But this tennis at the height of the occasion did not surprise his coach, Stefano Vukov, a Croatian who was watching from the players’ box on Saturday. He noticed this when he first decided to work with her towards the end of the 2018 season.

“Everyone feels the nerves, but she’s a very committed player,” he said. “She showed me in the first few tournaments we played. When the scores got close, she was always the one who came out on top in those tight contests. So it was mostly effortless for her, just her personality and her style. game.”

His victory at Wimbledon was deeply impressive, but not the result most Center Court players or All England Club employees aspired to.

Jabeur, ranked No. 2, is not only a sympathetic figure, but also a deeply symbolic figure as an Arab woman who is succeeding at the highest level of a sport that aspires to be truly global. Rybakina, ranked 23rd, plays for Kazakhstan but is Russian born, raised and, until this year, based in Moscow, where her parents still live.

Wimbledon once celebrated another tall, blonde Russian newcomer when Maria Sharapova won the title by surprise in 2004 at the age of 17. But Rybakina’s arrival comes at a delicate time for those with ties to Russia. The tournament banned all Russian and Belarusian players (and journalists) this year due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This decision came after pressure from the British government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has just resigned. But the ban was also put in place to deprive Russia and its leaders of the ability to use any Russian successes at the tournament for propaganda purposes.

Rybakina, who started representing Kazakhstan in 2018, was asked if her native country might try to politicize their victory.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been playing for Kazakhstan for a very, very long time. I represent them in the biggest tournaments, the Olympics, which was a dream come true. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, it’s always news, but I can’t do anything about it.

It is certainly true. Wimbledon, after all, banned players who represent Russia, not players who represented Russia. And it’s a challenge to see how the Russian government or sports officials could use Rybakina’s success as a shiny, shiny tale of Russian triumph when it’s Russia’s lack of support for his career that has eventually forced to change allegiance.

“I didn’t choose the place where I was born,” she says. “People believed in me. Kazakhstan has supported me so much. Even today I heard so much support. I’ve seen the flags, so I don’t know how to answer these questions.

She is not the first Russian tennis player to take the money and amenities and choose to represent Kazakhstan. She is not the first tennis player to take the money and the amenities and choose to represent another country.

nytimes sport

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