A Surprising Win for Elena Rybakina; the Perfect Disinformation for Russia
By: Jovia Zhang
At Saturday's Wimbledon women's singles finals, No. 23 Elena Rybakina won 3–6, 6–2, 6–2 against the No. 2 player in the world, Ons Jabeur of Tunisia. Rybakina’s surprising victory, however, wasn't as exciting as it should have been.
On her journey to claim the Wimbledon title, Rybakina defeated “rising stars like Chinese teenager Zheng Qinwen, former Grand Slam champions like Bianca Andreescu and Simona Halep,” according to the New York Times, proving her ability and strength. But however spectacular the Russian tennis star’s performance was, this clearly wasn’t the outcome everyone had been hoping for.
Rybakina plays for Kazakhstan, a vast and lightly-populated nation in Central Asia. She has never lived there for an extended period. She’s a Russian who was born and raised in Moscow. Her parents and many of her closest friends still live there. Until this year, she was also based in Moscow.
In 2004, Wimbledon celebrated when 17-year-old Maria Sharapova won the title. She was also from Russia. Rybakina’s timing, however, appears to be slightly awkward, especially for those with connections to Russia. Wimbledon prohibited all Russian and Belarusian players and journalists from entering this year due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ban was made as an attempt to prevent Russia from using any success in the tournament as propaganda.
Even though Rybakina has been representing Kazakhstan since 2018, there are still concerns about her native country making the victory political.
“I don’t know,” she said, according to the New York Times. “I’m playing for Kazakhstan for a very, very long time. I represent it on the biggest tournaments, the Olympics, which was a dream come true. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, it’s always some news, but I cannot do anything about this.”
Luckily, Wimbledon has banned only players who represent Russia, not players who used to represent Russia. The president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, claimed that Russia “won Wimbledon,” even though it was Russia’s lack of support for her career that caused Rybakina to switch allegiances.
Rybakina shared no response to a question about the war (she said she didn’t understand the question). But she clearly stated her tennis allegiance.
“I didn’t choose where I was born,” she said. “People believed in me. Kazakhstan supported me so much. Even today, I heard so much support. I saw the flags, so I don’t know how to answer these questions.”
Other than Rybakina, there are a fair number of tennis players who also chose to represent different countries, such as “former Canadian star Greg Rusedski and former Australian Johanna Konta,” according to the New York Times.
Like Rybakina, former Russian tennis player Yaroslava Shvedova also began representing Kazakhstan in 2008. She went on to win the Wimbledon women’s double title and became the only player to complete the so-called “golden set” at a Grand Slam tournament during the Open era. She won all 24 points of the first set, a third-round victory of 6–0, 6–4 at Wimbledon.
Shvedova says that the switch helped her career, boosting her from the No. 10 player in Russia to the No. 1 player in Kazakhstan.
“To be honest, we’ve always been underdogs, anyone coming from Eastern Europe,” said Stefano Vukov, Rybakina’s coach, who is Croatian. “We’ve always had to fight against windmills to break through. It’s not as easy as for other federations from other countries. Thank God the Kazakhstan federation has been supporting her.”
Both Vukov and Rybakina knew that the further she got in the tournament, the more her Russian roots would overshadow her victories.
During her news conference, she was asked how her parents react to the victory. Rybakina hadn’t seen them in months, not returning to Russia since February. “Probably, they’re going to be super proud.”