September 30, 2022

LONDON — Too nervous to salute, Elena Rybakina stepped into the sunshine of center court ahead of Saturday’s Wimbledon final and maintained a firm double grip on the black and red straps of the slung racket bag.

No wave. Not much looking around. His early play also betrayed some nervousness, which makes sense given this was his debut in a Grand Slam title match.

Almost two hours of big swings and many sprints later, she had won the championship at the All England Club with a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Ons Jabeur – the first singles trophy in a major tournament for his adopted country, Kazakhstan.

Even then, Rybakina’s reaction was as muted as possible, a small sigh, a hint of a smile.

“Glad it ended, to be honest,” she said, “because really, I’ve never felt anything like this.”

She later added, “I don’t know what should happen. When I was giving a speech at the end, I thought, ‘I’m going to cry now,’ but somehow I got it. Maybe later when I’m alone in the room, I’m going to cry all the time, I don’t know.

Rybakina was born in Moscow and has represented Kazakhstan since 2018, when the country offered her funding to support her tennis career. The change was a topic of conversation during Wimbledon, as any players who represent Russia or Belarus were barred from participating in the tournament due to the war in Ukraine.

Since the start of the WTA computer rankings in 1975, only one woman ranked below No. 23 Rybakina has won Wimbledon – Venus Williams in 2007 at No. 31, although she was No. 1 and had already won three of his five careers. Wimbledon trophies.

Rybakina, 23, used his big serve and powerful forehand to overcome No. 2-ranked Jabeur’s varied style with his mix of spins and slices to end the 12-game winning streak of the 27-year-old Tunisian, who came entirely on grass courts.

“You have an incredible game, and I don’t think we have anyone like that on tour,” Rybakina told Jabeur at the post-match trophy ceremony, then added this one-liner : “I ran so much today, so I don’t think I need to do more fitness, honestly.”

Jabeur was also participating in his first Grand Slam final.

“She deserved it. I hope next time will be mine,” said Jabeur, whose exuberance on the pitch and personality off it earned him the moniker of minister of happiness.

“Elena stole my title,” Jabeur joked, “but that’s okay.”

Rybakina entered the fortnight with odds of 100 to 1 to win this title, according to Caesars Sportsbook.

By the third game of the game, Jabeur was reading Rybakina’s serves and creating less attractive opportunities for base power. A squash-style forehand drew a forehand into the net to earn a break point, which Jabeur converted to lead 2-1 by fielding a 120mph serve and then watching Rybakina navigate a long backhand.

Jabeur turned to his box, jumped and shouted.

Rybakina’s mistakes multiplied. A volley into the net with the whole court wide open. A forehand scored after Jabeur barely got a short return. When another forehand went wrong, Jabeur broke at love to take the first set, shouted “Yalla!” — Arabic for “Let’s go!” – and threw an uppercut as she headed for the sideline.

At that time, all the impetus was with Jabeur, who was trying to become the first Arab or African woman to win a Slam singles title in the professional era, which dates back to 1968.

The story too. Prior to Saturday, the first-set winner had won the last 56 women’s major finals dating back to the 2006 US Open, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Jabeur was 30-1 this season after winning the first set, with her only loss to Magda Linette at Roland Garros.

“I love this tournament so much. I feel really sad. But that’s tennis. There’s only one winner,” Jabeur said. “I’m really happy to try to inspire many generations in my country. I hope they listen.”

Rybakina, who beat Serena Williams at Roland Garros last year, finally got her first break chance to start the second set and took a 1-0 lead when Jabeur missed a forehand. After saving four break points in his next two service games, Rybakina broke again and quickly led 5-1.

Jabeur leads the women’s circuit with 13 straight-set wins this season, but Rybakina came out much stronger in the decision.

She broke once more to start the third and took a 3-1 lead.

Jabeur needed to find a way to cut back on his mistakes and nearly turned things around while losing 3-2 in the third. She leveraged a pair of points she earned via a bunt and a love-40 lob on Rybakina’s serve.

But Rybakina erased that trio of break points and won the match, aided by a few serves at 119 mph.

“It’s frustrating to play against someone who serves really big and sometimes doesn’t give you the chance to take that break,” Jabeur said. “I’m just like, ‘It’s not over, I trust you.’ I even said “I love you” to myself during the game.

“It wasn’t meant to be.”

The hold there made it 4-2 and Rybakina quickly broke again. Now she was just one game away from the biggest win of her career – and she had to serve for it.

This match started with a 117 mph ace on Rybakina’s red racket. It ended with Jabeur missing a comeback.

Any apprehension, any discomfort Rybakina felt could disappear. Soon she was stepping over the green wall next to the front row seats to cross the bleachers for hugs with her coach, sister and others. Her parents, however, were not present on Saturday.

It wasn’t until more than two hours after the game that Rybakina was overwhelmed by the significance of it all. That moment of realization came when, during a press conference filled with questions about his lack of outward expression on the pitch, a reporter asked what Rybakina’s reaction according to his parents would be.

She hadn’t spoken to them yet.

“Probably,” she said, her eyes filling with tears, her face flushing, her hand over her mouth, “they’re going to be super proud.”

And then, after a pause, Rybakina joked, “You wanted to see emotion!”

ESPN Stats & Information and Associated Press contributed to this report.