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Elena Rybakina leaves Indian Wells thwarted and contorted

Emma Raducanu’s loss on Friday generated the biggest headlines in Indian Wells, but a more significant result emerged when Elena Rybakina, the No. 13 seed (higher than Raducanu), was bounced by Yulia Putintseva.

This isn’t a devastating loss for Rybakina. No player will suffer a devastating loss at a tournament which will be renewed just six months from now. This event is being played in weird circumstances. Accordingly, no player, coach or commentator should get too worked up about the wins and losses which occur in the Southern California desert.

However, one can certainly say that early-round losers — in specific contexts — will miss out on opportunities to bank points and gain confidence before the 2022 Australian Open. Among the players who could have especially used a deep run was Rybakina.

Let’s be clear: Rybakina has a big game. She hits huge, serves huge, and — at her best — can wipe quality players off the court with her arsenal of weapons. Camila Giorgi won Montreal by calibrating her howitzers and cannons. Rybakina, on that broader level, can be compared to Giorgi: Containing the firepower and harnessing her game are her fundamental and constant challenges.

Rybakina made the quarterfinals of Roland Garros earlier this year. She defeated Serena Williams. Though Serena was clearly physically limited, it’s still not an automatic feat to handle match pressure against an icon of the sport. Rybakina showed real growth in Paris.

Yet, as we see from many players on both tours, growth at one tournament doesn’t automatically lead to improvement over the next several months. Just look at Stefanos Tsitsipas making the Roland Garros final and then sharply regressing in the hardcourt summer which just ended.

Lots of WTA players make a surprise semifinal appearance at a major tournament and then can’t immediately replicate that result in the next two to three major tournaments. Rybakina is still waiting for that first major semifinal, but the larger point stands: What she did at Roland Garros didn’t have a clear (and positive) carryover effect. She was therefore one of several players who could have used Indian Wells as a springboard for 2022.

Now that chance is gone.

Again: This isn’t a devastating blow for Rybakina, or for other players who similarly fall short when trying to find a spark this October. However, it does represent a missed chance to build back belief before this 2021 season ends. Rybakina is still searching for answers, throwing herself into a pretzel shape trying to figure things out.

The search for clarity continues, making the upcoming offseason an important time for Elena Rybakina to find solutions which will enable her to calibrate her very explosive array of shots.

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