By Jane Voigt — Tennis With An Accent
Making predictions for any Grand Slam tournament is risky business. Nonetheless, predictions for this year’s Wimbledon were particularly risky because the oldest major closed its gates in 2020 due to the coronavirus, along with many of the precursor grass tournaments. The result: Players have not exercised their muscles — or their games — on grass very much in a two-year period.
In any normal tennis year, the gap between Roland Garros and Wimbledon is a very narrow window as it is, but when prefaced with a pandemic and its ripple effects, the challenges for players and pundits alike have become even more stark in 2021. As a result, several players who were lucky enough to persevere through global pandemic restrictions, which the pro tours had to follow, have seemed to come out of nowhere. They have gained ground on grass at this Wimbledon. Two players that come to mind in that group are Ons Jabeur and Elena Rybakina.
Rybakina is playing her inaugural Wimbledon and seeded No. 18, a rare combination in the history of tennis. In contrast, she fell in the first round of qualification just two years ago. She rose to international attention at Roland Garros, fighting her way to the quarterfinals where she lost to her doubles partner Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the tournament’s runner-up. Rybakina also advanced to the semifinals in Eastbourne, having taken out Elina Svitolina (No. 2) in the second round and Anastasija Sevastova in the quarterfinals.
Rybakina stands six-feet tall and packs a noteworthy powerful punch, even if power is a shared value and necessary asset in women’s professional tennis. The Russian native, who plays under the flag of Kazakhstan, also is clear on her skills, abilities, and potential, which bolster her mind, the headquarters for all rising tennis stars. This bundling is relatively rare for a 22-year-old, unless we examine Venus and Serena Williams’ records, which is another story altogether. Yet, what is noteworthy is Rybakina’s defeat of Serena in the fourth round of Paris, her first top-10 win at a Grand Slam and the women’s first meeting.
“I’m very surprised,” Mats Wilander said after Williams’ defeat, as reported by Eurosport. “Anyone would show anxiety, but she didn’t. She was unbelievably calm and I do think it helps these young players that they serve so good. She serves as hard as Serena and she moves really, really well.”
Nonetheless, the Williams sisters played in a different competitive environment than does Rybakina today, one that is normally won and lost at the margins.
On Friday, Rybakina made short work of American Shelby Rogers by pulling off the win in a little over an hour, 6-1, 6-4. The third-round encounter was their third meeting and second on grass this season. Rybakina fought back to beat Rogers in Berlin last month. At the US Open last year, however, Rogers took charge with a 7-5, 6-1 win.
Rybakina brought even more attention to one of her biggest assets, her serve, winning the match on a second-serve ace. She won 84% of points on her first serves, cracking one at 119 MPH to the add court. She backed up her serving with 22 winners and only 16 unforced errors. Both women hit relatively flat ground strokes, but the power and depth of ball placement from Rybakina certainly provoked Rogers’ 11 unforced errors off her backhand wing, more than twice the amount from Rybakina.
Rybakina will need all this power, skill, calm, and mental fortitude when she meets No. 2 seed Aryana Sabalenka in the round of 16 on Monday. If Elena can upset Sabalenka, who also is playing her first fourth round at Wimbledon but second overall after having reached that stage in Melbourne this year, could then meet Ons Jabeur, seeded No. 21.
The first Arab woman to ever win a WTA title – 2021 Birmingham – Jabeur took down the 2017 Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza in a 3-set Centre Court spectacle that left fans on their feet. She added to tennis history by becoming the first Arab woman to reach the second week at Wimbledon. At match point, the native of Tunisia, stepped to the back of this celebrated court only to get sick before stepping to the baseline and serving for the match.
“I’m good,” she told fans while smiling knowingly, after winning 5-7, 6-3, 6-2. “I can play another match now. The energy is amazing.”
This was Jabeur’s first appearance on Centre Court Wimbledon, but her second meeting with Muguruza who mastered Venus Williams in the 2017 final.
“I lost to her [Muguruza] last time so this was kind of my revenge against her, in a nice way,” Jabeur said. “I tried to stay more calm and tried to do more drop shot and going to the net.”
Jabeur’s playing style was everything it needed to be. She moved the ball with tactical precision, forcing error after error from Muguruza. Jabeur also threw in supremely timed drop shots and under-spin approach shots, which forced the six-foot Columbian native to bend down low and recover quickly, which she couldn’t do consistently. Jabeur served with precision, as well, hitting six aces to Muguruza’s four. Jabeur’s best finish at a Grand Slam came earlier this year in Melbourne – the quarterfinals. Her best finish at Wimbledon was a second round achievement in 2018; she lost in the first round two years back.
A Jabeur and Rybakina quarterfinal could be a similar match to the one Jabeur played against Muguruza … a Goliath versus David of height and power against variety, craftiness and sheer guile. Yet, this is only a projection.
Both Jabeur and Rybakina have landed in the toughest section of the entire draw and must first climb their own tall mountains in fourth-round matches on Manic Monday. Jabeur will face Iga Swiatek (No. 7), another new face in the second week of Wimbledon but not a new face in the final rounds of a major. Swiatek won Roland Garros last year and, although professing relative naïveté on grass, has yet to drop a set at Wimbledon. She trounced Romania Irina Begu 6-0, 6-1, in just over an hour, having obviously found her inner grass court game while aiming for more glory.
Rybakina’s clash with Sabalenka will be yet another cross-roads for both women. They will pave new ground for women’s tennis, yet only one will make history by moving on. Sabalenka has defeated Rybakina twice in two meetings. In Abu Dhabi this year, Sabalenka advanced to the semifinals over Rybakina, her 13th consecutive win of the season. Both are power hitters, with Rybakina seemingly the quickest to go for winners in a rally, an asset if all other tennis parts are working well on Monday. Sabalenka became the 2-seed at Wimbledon when Simona Halep withdrew with a calf injury. This lofty position could play poorly in her mind, given past performances where victory seemed within reach yet results proved otherwise. Yet, she knows what she has to do.
Perhaps the Belarusian’s comment after her victory over Rybakina in Abu Dhabi will prove prescient:
“I knew she was going to play really fast and deep and I have to stay low and prepare myself for these shots,” Sabalenka said. “She’s playing really free and sometimes you don’t have time to prepare for the shots and she’s making a lot of winners. That’s what happens against these types of players. Everything can change really quick. You have to wait for your opportunity because these kinds of players cannot play all the time at this level. It will drop a little and I have to be ready for this moment.”
Most certainly their match will be won at the margins, a usual projection in this ever-competitive late-pandemic pro tour environment.