Rybakina’s Wimbledon Fairy Tale

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Bill Simons

Wimbledon

Headline writers were well-armed with wordplays: Mission Ons-possible, When You Wish Ons a Star, The One and Ons Jabeur, Fascinating Ons is Far From a Bore.  

After all, Wimbledon seemed poised to give us a fairy tale ending. While Kazakh Elena Rybakina was far below the radar, it seemed that the so appealing Ons Jabeur, nicknamed the Minister of Happiness, was destined to become Tunisia’s fun-loving, drop-shotting, barbecue-happy Wimbledon champ. 

Jabeur’s backstory inspires. In 2010 a fruit merchant in a Tunisian bazaar got into a struggle with police. It soon escalated and kick-started an insurrection that swept through the Arab world. And, simultaneously, a 16-year-old girl had a dream.

But skeptics bristled: “Forget it. Arab, African and Muslim girls don’t make it big in tennis.” But the kid from Ksar Hellal was defiant. Soon she won the 2011 French Open girls championship. And, eleven daunting years later, the most beloved player in the game was poised to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish on Centre Court.

Today the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open Era took advantage of three errors from her stressed-out foe and played seamless defense. Jabeur broke early to grab the lead. 

Sure, the average ranking of her foes before the final was 89, but still the Minister of Happiness used her speed, variety, experience and the best drop shot in WTA history to race to a 6-3 first-set win – perfect script!

But this Wimbledon is something else. Players were banned, points were stripped, COVID struck, GOATS were humbled, seeds were toppled, bullies had bromances, superstars withdrew.

And 23-year-old Elena Rybakina, who’d never gotten beyond the quarters of a Slam before, had her own fairy tale to write.

Elena is one tough Russian-born six-foot warrior who turned pro at 15 and became a Kazakh to advance her career. Sure, she had trouble just eating her breakfast this morning, but at the beginning of the second set everything changed. 

She seemed to say to herself, “I have nothing to lose. Let’s go for this thing.” Now her arm was loose, she hit with freedom, she stepped in, took the ball early and blasted a thunderous forehand to gain her first break. 

Elena hadn’t hit a single ace in the first set. Now, her perfectly placed serve was Serena-like. Her service winners were a game changer. So were her blistering groundies. 

Just like Simona Halep had in the semis against Rybakina, tennis’s Cinderella du jour ran into a buzz saw. The Kazakh was red-lining. Measuring the court, unleashing her power, suddenly fearless and in the zone, Elena displayed astounding grass court tennis: thunderous serves, groundies that found the corners and deft volleys. She returned Ons’s modest serves with interest and even prevailed on scramble points.  

Feeling the pressure, Jabeur muffed approach shots. Her forehands sailed long, she double faulted, her dropshots erred. She tried to reassure herself: “I trust you, I love you.” 

But her long-legged foe, with her stoic intensity and no-nonsense stride, brought to mind the Russian Maria Sharapova. 

Now back on her heels, Jabeur was overpowered. She’s seen as an artist, but her strokes went awry. She’s called The Magician, but she had few tricks left. With Tom Cruise watching from the Royal Box, Elena was now clearly Centre Court’s top gun. Fans sporting beige turbans, Billie Jean King in purple and Kate Middleton in an almost neon canary yellow dress began to wonder whether this was mission impossible for Jabeur.

Rybakina won 9 of the next 12 games, captured the second set, and went up 3-1 in the decisive third set. Elena’s mid-match turnaround impressed. But could she prevail at crunch time? 

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In a flash, Ons gained three break points in the sixth game of the final set. But, in the most decisive moment of the match, Rybakina lifted her game to a whole new level, showed her grit, her will and her clean power strokes. Jabeur’s hopes were crushed. Soon a final return of serve from Ons drifted wide, and Rybakina scored a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory. 

Elena was still expressionless. Martina Navratilova quipped, “She wins the trophy for the least emotion shown after a win!”

In the meantime, cynics claimed that in the end, Putin had prevailed. Kate Middleton had to present the trophy to the Moscow-born champion, who won’t deny that she’s still living in Moscow.

But what is not deniable is that Ons is still wildly popular. Throngs chanted her name on St. Mary’s walk. Jabeur said, “I hope my fans aren’t disappointed…I hope to inspire as many generations as possible.” Inside Tennis then asked, “As the ‘Minister of Happiness’, will you be happy when you leave London?”

With a smile that could have lit up the Sahara, she said, “Always happy. Like Bob Marley said, ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’”

For her part, the impassive Rybakina brushed aside questions about Putin and Russia, and, when asked about her deeply devoted parents, the Khazakh finally broke down and wept. She added that Wimbledon “is just something I will never forget…For sure, it’s a fairy tale.”

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