Dubai Tennis: Elena Rybakina makes her presence felt on her way to semi-finals

Kazakh defeats second seed Karolina Pliskova in the quarter-finals on Thursday

Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan during her quarter-final against Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. EPA
Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan during her quarter-final against Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. EPA

Elena Rybakina: remember the name. Overshadowed in the build-up to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships by an all-star cast of higher ranked players, household names, and grand slam champions, the 20-year-old from Kazakhstan is now two wins away from the title.

This is by no means a fluke, flash-in-the-pan campaign. Rybakina may have arrived in Dubai somewhat under the radar but she was, and still is, the most in-form player on the WTA Tour. While most eyes were on Sofia Kenin after her Australian Open triumph, Rybakina has been busy racking up more wins than any player on the tour, which, after her polished performance against second seed Karolina Pliskova in the quarter-finals on Thursday, now stands at an unrivalled 18 victories.

The 16th win of the season came against none other than the reigning Australian Open champion here in the first round as Rybakina strives to prove that she belongs in the same conversation as Kenin, Naomi Osaka, and Bianca Andreescu as the young guns battling for WTA Tour supremacy.

Her rise has been sharp. This time last year she was ranked No 192, and started this year ranked No 36. Rybakina is now inside the top-20 at No 19 after winning one title and reaching a further two finals in four tournaments. She is set to climb even higher after her exploits this week.

“I have to adjust because everything is new for me,” Rybakina said after her 7-6, 6-3 win over Pliskova as she attempts to get used to her new rising status.

Rybakina may still be adjusting but she resembled a seasoned pro against world No 3 Pliskova. The Czech has often been regarded as the ace queen of the WTA Tour, but Rybakina has set about claiming that throne. After out-acing Pliskova 11-3 on Thursday, the Kazakh’s ace count now stands at a tour-leading 117.

“She serves over 190kph and she's quite strong, so I think the speed is always going to cause trouble,” Pliskova said of Rybakina’s big weapon. “[But] she's not winning only because of the serve, especially not that many matches.

Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova leaves after loosing to Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina during the WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship, at the Dubai Tennis Stadium in the United Arab Emirates on February 20, 2020. / AFP / KARIM SAHIB
Karolina Pliskova after loosing to Elena Rybakina on Thursday. AFP

“Sometimes when you're this confident, you don't even know what you're doing, and you really don't think much. I think that's her case right now. Especially when you are young, pretty much all the matches she's playing well up to now. She's on a good run.”

Rybakina may possess a fearsome serve and a powerful, attacking all-court game, but such aggression is tempered with a calm demeanour that allows her to stay composed under pressure. “I'm always calm,” she said.

She needed to be after falling 4-2 behind in the opening set. Instead of allowing Pliskova to hammer home her advantage, Rybakina broke immediately back, regained control of her service games, and ran through the eventual tiebreak.

With the lead secured, Rybakina seized the momentum by breaking Pliskova for a 2-0 lead and she maintained that gap before closing out her first career victory over a top-five player.

“That's amazing, but I didn't really think if she's No 2 or 3 – it doesn't really matter to me,” Rybakina said of her career milestone. “I always try to do my best. Of course, I want to win every match. I was just focusing what I had to do.”

After seeing off the world No 3 and the Australian Open champion in the space of three days – having only arrived in Dubai on Sunday night following her appearance in the St Petersburg Open final – Rybakina next faces Croatian eighth seed Petra Martic in Friday’s semi-final.

For the first time this week, Rybakina will be the favourite in a match against a seeded player. It is a position she needs to learn to get comfortable with, while next time she returns to Dubai, there is little chance Rybakina will be quite so overshadowed.

Published: February 20, 2020 09:59 PM

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