Rybankina v Jabeur: A changing tennis world on show in Wimbledon women’s final

Wimbledon will have female Arab and Kazakh players competing for the first time on Centre Court

Whatever algorithms countries use to produce top players, Kazakhstan’s buy-in attitude has served them more than well. As Russian turned Kazakh Elena Rybakina prepares to face Tunisian Ons Jabeur in the women’s final, any idea that Centre Court on the final Saturday is a simple place to get to, is belied by the journey of both players.

The 23-year-old Rybakina previously represented Russia but switched her nationality to Kazakhstan in 2018 to take advantage of greater financial help. Because of that, she successfully side-stepped this year’s Wimbledon ban on Russian players.

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When she arrived as a Kazakh player, Rybakina came under the watchful eye of Dave Miley, who is well known in Irish tennis circles and is the current tennis director for the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation.

Miley, who in 2019 unsuccessfully ran for the biggest job in tennis – president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) – previously had a complaint upheld in Dublin by the Workplace Relations Commission after Tennis Ireland was found to have discriminated against him during the process of appointing a new chief executive.

Miley was appointed to the job in Kazakhstan in 2020, and two years later a player is in the final. That’s a laugh out loud irony, given that Ireland has no male or female player involved at junior or senior level in this year’s Wimbledon.

Nor did Jabeur come from a background that could provide everything she needed to get to a Centre Court final. Born in a small town, Ksar Hellal, in Tunisia, she grew up in the larger nearby coastal town of Sousse.

“I’m someone from Tunisia and nobody believed I could be here at Wimbledon as the world number two,” she said. “That’s the message I’m always trying to send. If you’re mentally strong, you can do anything.”

When she was ten years old, her club didn’t have their own tennis courts, so she trained on courts at nearby hotels.

At 12 years of age, she moved to the capital city of Tunis to train at the Lycée Sportif El Menzah, a high school for the country’s up-and-coming athletes. She stayed for several years and at 16, with help from an ITF grant, began to train for periods in Europe, mainly Belgium and France.

She received support from the Grand Slam Development Fund on several occasions and in 2017, at the age of 22 and ranked 193 in the world, was among the first crop of players to receive a $50,000 Grand Slam Player Grant. That year she became the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam at Roland Garros, and finished the season inside the Top 100.

“I started playing tennis in a small club in Tunisia, playing just national tournaments,” said Jabeur this week. “Then at the age of 10 I started my first international tournament in Paris. At the age of 13 I decided to go to the capital in Tunis to study, train at the same time.

“It was like sports high school. That really helped me become a better player. The junior title came at the French Open. Then I struggled a lot with moving from juniors to pro with injuries, with not knowing how really to play with my game.”

“But then I practised a few months in Belgium. Since I think 2019, ‘20, everything clicked for me. It was much, much better. Then I’m here.”

A striking difference between the two finalists is Jabeur’s proud sense of identity, while Rybakina understandably has had to be more cautious in what she says and has been consistently defensive about her background and her Kazakh conversion.

On Thursday she was asked about how she identified. Born in Russia and having lived there for much of her life, it was suggested she was representing Russia in a competition where Russians have been banned.

“Actually, I answer these questions yesterday. I can repeat it now,” she said. “I’m playing already for Kazakhstan for a long time. I’m really happy representing Kazakhstan. They believed in me. There is no more question about how I feel. It’s just already long time, my journey as a Kazakh player. I played Olympics, Fed Cup. I think I gave an answer also yesterday about this.”

Pressed on reports saying that she still lives in Moscow, Rybakina was equally evasive.

“I think I’m based on tour because I’m travelling every week,” she answered. “I think most of the time I spend on tour. I practise in Slovakia between the tournaments. I had camps in Dubai. So, I don’t live anywhere, to be honest.”

Living in her head now is the prospect of winning the title. Over the last two weeks, neither player has diverted from their obvious strengths. Rybakina has the back court game and is especially strong on her backhand side. Her serve and the accuracy and pace of her shots to move Jabeur out of position will be pivotal.

The 27-year-old will hope her wristy game, slice and dropshot and the wily ring craft she brings to the court will see her through. But she has to hold on to her high-intensity game and not let it dip as she did in the costly second set of her semifinal.

With the final offering either the first Kazakh or the first Arab winner, either way both have more than themselves to remember when they step onto Centre Court.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times