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Profile | Elena Rybakina
With her mighty serve and fierce groundstrokes, Kazakhstan has a new superstar
By Stephen Higgins | 2 March 2020
Boasting a side that includes top 50 regulars Yulia Putintseva and Zarina Diyas, Kazakhstan has become a significant Fed Cup force in recent years.
The Central Asian nation just missed out on the 2020 Finals after falling to Belgium in the qualifiers. Neither Putintseva or Diyas could get the better of Elise Mertens during that tie, but in Elena Rybakina, the Kazakhs have found an awesome weapon who could them to future Fed Cup glory.
Now a top 20 player, Rybakina’s journey started in Moscow on June 17th, 1999.
Elena first took to a tennis court aged six after encouragement from her father. In an interview with the WTA’s Courtney Nguyen, she spoke of fondness for gymnastics and ice skating as a child. With Elena too tall for those disciplines, tennis seemed the best route.
“My dad was like, okay, just try tennis because he loves tennis. He actually tried to play when he was 20. So, yes, I started to play tennis like this. He brought me to the tennis,” she told Nguyen.
Rybakina trained in Moscow and entered her first ITF junior event aged 14 in Vsevolozhsk, 15 miles east of St. Petersburg. She made the quarters there and over the next few years, advanced through Russia’s plethora of junior events.
In 2014, Rybakina won a couple of Grade 3 events in the homeland and played her first pro tournament in Antalya, Turkey. She made steady progress on the ITF junior circuit before a breakthrough in 2016. That year, Rybakina won two Grade 1s (Kazan and Umag) and established herself on the pro circuit with deep runs at Antalya, Moscow and Helsinki. At the age of 17, she ended the 2016 season just outside the WTA’s top 600.
Rybakina followed that up with an immense 2017 campaign on the ITF junior circuit. By year’s end, she had also rapped on the WTA’s door.
The right-hander opened the year with a superb showing Down Under as she made the last four of the Australian Open juniors. Marta Kostyuk eventually stopped her in the semis. Rybakina met another future WTA star (Iga Swiatek) in the final of the Trofeo Bonfiglio in Milan but captured the title this time. The Russian then notched a win over Amanda Anisimova during a run to the fourth round of Roland Garros. Rybakina eventually ended her junior career having made the world’s top three.
In the autumn of 2017, while transitioning from junior to senior play, Rybakina took both Anna Blinkova and Irina Camelia Begu to three sets in ITF events. By now it was clear that Elena had the game to play professionally but her parents were understandably cautious. “My dad wanted me to go to university in the US,” she told David Cox in an Australian Open profile. “I had some really good offers from various colleges out there but I knew that I wanted to turn professional.”
When Kazakhstan offered to fund her development in exchange for representing the nation, the decision was made and Elena went on the main tour in 2018. Vindication came in brisk fashion as she exploded at the St. Petersburg Premier that February.
In Russia’s second city, Rybakina made it through qualifying before shocking two established players back-to-back in Timea Bacsinszky and Caroline Garcia.
We have an upset! 😲— WTA (@WTA) January 31, 2018
Rybakina, 450th in the world edges past number 7 Garcia 4-6, 7-6, 7-6!
She is first into @Formula_TX quarterfinals! 👏 pic.twitter.com/TnAKe1imvF
18-year-old Elena’s victory over Garcia was her first against a top 10 player. It was an extraordinary win as Rybakina was ranked more than 440 places below the Frenchwoman when they took to the court.
Rybakina then lost to Julia Goerges in the last eight but she was anonymous no more. Elena won her first ITF pro event a month later in Kazan and played a heavy schedule to the end of 2018. After starting the year ranked 420, she ended the season inside the WTA’s top 200.
2019 would be a phenomenal year for Rybakina as she surged into the world’s top 40. She opened the season with an ITF title in Launceston and winning soon became a habit. In the spring, the rising Kazakh won two more Russian ITF events in Moscow and Kazan. The summer saw her qualify for Istanbul and Roland Garros before a breakout run in The Netherlands. It took Kiki Bertens to stop Rybakina from reaching her first WTA final in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
Then, in July, Rybakina announced herself as a star with her first WTA title in Bucharest. Patricia Maria Tig was the victim as Elena took the final 6-2 6-0. She made another final in Nanchang where she lost in straights to Rebecca Peterson.
With the backing of enthusiastic full-time coach Stefano Vukov, Rybakina settled into the WTA Tour in 2019 and notched more match wins in Wuhan, Linz and Luxembourg. On New Year’s Eve, Elena Rybakina was 37 in the world rankings. She rose 154 places in 12 months.
The surge has continued in 2020 as Rybakina grows in confidence by the month. She opened the season with a run to the final of Shenzhen where she lost to Ekaterina Alexandrova.
The pain of losing was short lived as she won the very next event in Hobart with a 7-6 6-3 defeat of Shuai Zhangl. Rybakina fell in the third round of the Australian Open but was straight into another final in St. Petersburg, followed by yet another in Dubai. The 20-year-old played a match-of-the-season contender with Simona Halep in the Dubai final and only a final set tie-break separated the players.
Confident, strong and determined, there does not appear to be a ceiling for Elena Rybakina right now. If you listen closely, you might just hear a Kazakhstan tennis official dancing joyously on a table.
We must start with that booming serve. Given her six feet tall stature and powerful build, it’s not surprising that Rybakina has a strong serve. But it’s her easy motion and variety of serves that impresses most. The Kazakh is in the territory of Serena Williams when it comes to speed and leads the WTA Tour at time of writing in aces.
Aside from the serve, her backhand is often glorious. Rybakina has lovely technique on her two-hander and can inject enormous pace either crosscourt or down the line. Her forehand also has cannon-like qualities but tends to throw up more errors.
With a build similar to Dinara Safina, Rybakina moves pretty well and has occasional variety with a slice backhand and dropshot. From what I’ve seen, she can most improve her confidence and desire around the net.
Rybakina is already on the cusp of the WTA top 10. That enormous serve should push her there and keep her in the mix for years to come.