Elena Rybakina looks to make lethal serve count in Wimbledon semi-final against Simona Halep
Russian and Belarusian players may be banned from Wimbledon but someone born and raised in Moscow is just one match away from the final.
Elena Rybakina is hardly a household name but for diehard tennis fans she is someone who has been attracting attention for a while.
The 23-year-old has a brutal game dominated by huge groundstrokes that have thrived on the grass at the All England Club this summer.
Her run has by no means been straightforward, with wins over the likes of CoCo Vandeweghe and 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu before Wednesday’s three-set win against Ajla Tomljanovic propelled her to her first Grand Slam semi-final.
Rybakina represents Kazakhstan but, like many of her fellow Kazakh players, she is Russian born and bred.
It was in 2018 when, struggling financially and considering a move to collegiate tennis in the US, a then teenage Rybakina switched allegiances with the promise of financial support.
“I think it was very good timing because they [Kazakhstan] were looking for the player. I was looking for some help. They believed in me. So I think it was a very good combination. We just found each other,” she said after her 4-6 6-2 6-3 victory over Tomljanovic.
“They believed in me. They made everything possible for me to keep playing, keep improving. I had all the conditions to practise and everything. Of course, it helped a lot.
“They are still helping and supporting me. I’m really happy that I’m representing Kazakhstan already for such a long time.”
Rybakina hadn’t played a Grand Slam when she switched allegiances and her best career results up until this tournament - two WTA singles titles and a French Open quarter-final - have come under the Kazakh flag.
There is no question of her having done anything wrong, though in the current climate there have naturally been questions.
She added: “When I heard this [about the ban], this is not something you want to hear because we are playing sport. Everybody wants to compete. They were not choosing where they were born
“Of course, I feel for them because everybody wants to compete at the biggest tournament, at Wimbledon. I just hope that next year is going to be back to normal.
“I was born in Russia, but of course I am representing Kazakhstan. It’s already a long journey for me. I was playing Olympics, Fed Cup before. I got so much help and support.
“I’m feeling just the support of the people and very happy to represent Kazakhstan because I think I’m also bringing some results, which are very good for the sport in Kazakhstan.”
Any controversy aside, an intriguing semi-final against Simona Halep - the most in-form player of the semi-finalists - awaits.
The 2019 champion has not dropped a set and is on a 12-match winning streak at SW19, coming off the back of her win over Serena Williams in the final three years and missing the 2021 event with injury.
A minor wobble towards the end of her 6-2 6-4 win over Amanda Anisimova on Wednesday aside, it has largely been smooth sailing for the Romanian who is a ninth Grand Slam semi-final.
Halep and Rybakina have contested a handful of tight, high-quality encounters in recent seasons - most recently at the US Open last year - and the 17th seed is ready for her toughest test yet.
She said: “I think that the key, of course, is my serve, aggressive game. She’s a great champion. She’s moving really well, reading the game. I just try to do my best, focus on things which I can control: my serve, my shots, emotions.
“They were very tough matches. I remember in Dubai [in 2020] I lost in the tie-break, very close. At the US Open also, there I was a bit injured. In the end I just know that I have to play till the end because she’s a great fighter.
“No matter the score, I’ll just keep focusing on my game, on my plan, just be more stable and also confident in some moments.”
Rybakina is not lying when she says her serve is key having served 44 aces in her five matches, and Halep is fully aware of what danger the Kazakh poses.
“Well, my first aim is to touch her serve first and to try to put it back on the court,” said the Romanian.
“I know she’s a big hitter. I played against her a few times. I’m sure that she has a lot of confidence being in the semis now here in Wimbledon.
“But it’s a new match, new challenge. I’m ready for it and I will try to give everything to take my chance.”
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