There may be no tennis players representing Russia allowed on the courts of the All England Club this year but that has not stopped the most promising Russia-born prospect of the new generation from flourishing on the grass and piecing together the best tournament of her young career .
Down a set and under pressure against an inspired opponent, Elena Rybakina shrugged off her early nerves and recovered to bulldoze her way into her first grand slam semi-final, defeating Alja Tomljanovic 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.
By breaking new ground at Wimbledon, Rybakina, the 17th seed, is the first Kazakh woman or man in history to reach a grand slam semi-final. As she took it all in, her victory for her was described multiple times by the on-court interviewer as “a huge day for you and country.” It is a little more complicated than that.
Rybakina was born in Russia and represented her home country throughout her childhood. But like many Russian players before her, despite reaching a junior career high of No 3 she did not receive help from the Russian Federation. As her family de ella shouldered the significant costs of her career de ella, they considered college and alternative paths.
That uncertainty was quashed after receiving an offer from Kazakhstan to represent the country in exchange for financial support and access to their growing training facilities. In 2018, aged 19, she made the change. “I think it was very good timing because they 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 find each other,” she said on Wednesday.
Since 2007, Kazakhstan, an oil-rich nation in Central Asia that borders Russia and China, has focused on building itself into a prominent tennis nation, and varnishing its global reputation in the process, by importing Russian players to compete for them. Their actions have been spearheaded by Bulat Utemuratov, a billionaire and president of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation, who previously advised the former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Utermuratov was mentioned during a Parliamentary debate on Kazakhstan anti-corruption sanctions in February.
This is already the second generation of Russia-born Kazakh players and Kazakhstan has become an increasingly visible presence on both men’s and women’s tours. Rybakina, Yulia Putintseva and men’s player Alexander Bublik are all inside the top 50. Kazakhstan now hosts ATP and WTA 250 tournaments each year.
Among many things, it shows the fluidity of identity in professional tennis. Tennis players are individual athletes who play for themselves and on-court success is often the ultimate priority. Rybakina’s opponent, Tomljanovic, also changed her nationality from her, opting to represent Australia from 2014 after previously representing Croatia.
“It’s tough question,” the 23-year-old Rybakina said on how she views her nationality. “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. For me it’s tough question just to say exactly what I feel.”
As Rybakina bulldozes the Wimbledon draw, other Russians have spent the past 10 days on holiday or at home. Asked how she received the news of their bans by Wimbledon in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rybakina was rueful:
“When I heard this, 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 it for them because everybody wants to compete at the biggest tournament, at Wimbledon.” said Rybakina. In response to a question about Ukraine, she concluded by wishing for the end to the war.
Rybakina had previously reached one grand slam quarter-final, beating Serena Williams in the fourth round at the French Open last year. Although the pandemic halted her fast rise up the rankings, a major grand slam run was inevitable for a player with such an enormous serve and destructive groundstrokes.
After trailing by a set, Rybakina produced a supreme serving exhibition for the remainder of the match while overpowering Tomljanovic from the baseline. Rybakina finished with 15 aces, averaging 109 mph behind her first serve as she flew to her first grand slam semi-final of many of her.