Elena Rybakina on a rollercoaster career of Covid disruption to Wimbledon champion

Russian-born Kazakh talks to 'The National' about her breakthrough Grand Slam triumph, reaching the Australian Open final, and returning to the UAE for the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open

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Elena Rybakina doesn't give too much away on the tennis court. Whether it's winning or losing Grand Slam finals – she has recent experience in both – the demeanour remains pretty much the same; cool, calm, collected, practically unflappable no matter how high the stakes or intense the pressure.

In truth, the Russian-born Kazakh is the proud owner of one of the best poker faces in sport. "Inside there is a rollercoaster," Rybakina, 23, told The National at the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open on Monday.

Rollercoasters seem to be something of a theme for Rybakina. Her burgeoning career has resembled one at times, her matches could often be described as such, and if she has some free time at the end of this tournament, she wants to experience the world's fastest at Ferrari World.

That wasn't possible the last time Rybakina was in town competing in the one-off Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open. The tournament was created to fill a gap in the calendar at the start of the 2021 season following major disruption to the tour caused by the pandemic. There were no spectators and no movement around the city; just hotel to tennis court and tennis court back to hotel.

This time is markedly different. Not only are there fans in attendance and the players are free to explore the city, but the tournament itself is here to stay. The Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open is a new permanent fixture on the tour, so even if Rybakina doesn't have the chance to ride Formula Rossa this time, there's always next year.

"Last time there was no one [here), I didn’t see anything at all," Rybakina said. "So if I have some free time, for sure I would like to go [to Ferrari World] because I have never been to Abu Dhabi [properly]. If I have the day off after the tournament, maybe I will go because I can’t really do that during the tournament!"

It was indeed a rollercoaster year that preceded Rybakina's previous visit to Abu Dhabi. The Kazakh had started 2020 like a bullet train, winning a title in Hobart and reaching the final in four of her first five events, including in Dubai where she lost an all-time classic to Simona Halep.

All that momentum came to a shuddering halt, though, when the tennis season went into lockdown. Rybakina, who possesses one of the finest serves in the game, struggled to rediscover her best form when the tour resumed six months later.

The rollercoaster has continued in the two years since her last visit to the capital, too. Following a heartbreaking defeat in the bronze medal match at the Tokyo Olympics and an injury-hit start to 2022, Rybakina soared to the ultimate heights in professional tennis by capturing the Wimbledon crown.

Trailing by a set to Ons Jabeur in the final, Rybakina turned it around to win her first Grand Slam title. Throughout she looked as cool as ice, but she insisted that was far from the reality.

"In the first set I was not playing my best at all, but I decided to let it go and relax, and I told myself ‘whatever happens, happens’," she said. "I just tried to do everything I could to show how I can play because I played really well in the previous matches, but in the final I was very nervous.

"Like that, I won the second set, then towards the end of the match, the nerves came back and it wasn’t easy but in the end I managed my emotions well."

Wimbledon's decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players resulted in the WTA and ATP stripping the tournament of points, so Rybakina's breakthrough triumph was not reflected in the rankings. She entered Wimbledon ranked 23rd, left ranked 23rd, and remained outside the top 20 for the rest of the year.

There were no such issues at the most recent Grand Slam, though. Competing for a second major title in the past three tournaments, Rybakina took the first set against Aryna Sabalenka in the Australian Open final, but it proved a case of role reversal as Sabalenka fought back to claim a thrilling victory.

Now up to a career-high world No 10 and closer to a more accurate reflection of where she belongs in the WTA Tour's hierarchy, Rybakina has made it clear that she believes she can become the best player in the world and will use the Australian Open experience, both the good and the bad, to launch herself forward for the rest of the season and beyond.

"It was another great experience for me at a Grand Slam," she said. "It was the first time for me in the second week in Australia and I played really well. Even in the final it was a close match. I had chances here and there but I didn’t quite take them.

"In the end, it was a really good two weeks in Melbourne and I can take a lot of positives from the experience for future tournaments."

The next stop on the Rybakina rollercoaster will be a second-round match in Abu Dhabi against either Karolina Pliskova or Garbine Muguruza, two players who have held the top spot she so covets. Like many of Rybakina's matches, it will be one not to miss.

Updated: February 07, 2023, 4:49 AM