The Duchess of Cambridge was put in an “awkward” spot as she congratulated Wimbledon’s Russian-born women’s champion.
Russian-born Elena Rybakina powered back from a set down against Ons Jabeur to win the Wimbledon title on Sunday morning (AEST), denying the Tunisian world number two the chance to make African tennis history.
World number two Jabeur was in charge at the start of the match but the 17th seed, representing Kazakhstan, regrouped and dropped just four more games on the way to sealing her first Grand Slam title with a 3-6, 6-2, 6- 2 victory.
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Prior to her Wimbledon triumph, Rybakina had never got past the quarter-finals of a Slam.
While Russian and Belarusian players were banned from Wimbledon this year following the invasion of Ukraine, Rybakina switched allegiances to Kazakhstan in 2018. She is the first Kazakh player to win Wimbledon and had previously swatted away questions about her nationality.
“I’m really happy representing Kazakhstan. They believed in me. There is no more question about how I feel,” the 23-year-old said prior to the end.
“It’s already a long time my journey as a Kazakh player. I played Olympics, Fed Cup.”
Rybakina opted not to discuss how much time she spends in Moscow, saying she trains in Slovakia and Dubai when not on tour.
“So I don’t live anywhere, to be honest,” added Rybakina, whose parents live in the Russian capital.
Part of the reason behind Wimbledon’s ban of Russian players — which sparked a global firestorm in the tennis world and prompted many players, including Novak Djokovic, to hit out at the All England Club — was to prevent the possibility of a member of the royal family handing over the trophy to a Russian winner, as Vladimir Putin wages war on Ukraine.
But in the end the Duchess of Cambridge handed over the Venus Rosewater Dish to Rybakina, a player who was born in Russia and lived there most of her life.
Some tennis pundits suggested there was a slightly “awkward” look about the ultimate outcome.
Jon Wertheim wrote for Sports Illustrated: “No one behind this decision (to ban Russian players) wanted to glorify or see the sight of a Russian player raising the trophy so it could be used as propaganda by Vladimir Putin. It would have been too much to bear. But, in Rybakina, you have a player who was born and raised in Moscow. Her family of her still lives there. But she was able to play because she received funding from the Kazakhstan federation and changed her nationality from her.
“As we’ve previously said, we don’t begrudge Rybakina for her decision and the ban was not of her doing, but there was something a little awkward about a player who is Russian in every way except her passport winning Wimbledon. That is not Rybakina’s fault, it’s about the overall decision.
“Throughout the tournament, she has been measured and diplomatic when asked about the situation, likely aware of how politically charged it all was. We can’t help but feel for her, as the flaws of the ban truly came to bear Saturday.”
Tennis reporter Ben Rothenberg agreed it was an “awkward” ending but suggested Rybakina’s win was also an indictment on Russia.
“Obviously very awkward after banning Russians to have a Muscovite leave with the #Wimbledon title, but to my mind, this shows a great Russian failure,” he tweeted.
“Elena Rybakina left Russian tennis because they failed to support and recognize her talent.
“Russia lost today. Kazakhstan won.”
Russia goes rogue: ‘We win Wimbledon’
In the aftermath of the win, Russia was gloating. The country’s tennis chief Shamil Tarpischev hailed Rybakina’s Wimbledon victory as a triumph for Russia, describing the player as “our product”.
“It’s very nice! Well done Rybakina! We win the Wimbledon tournament,” Tarpischev was quoted as saying by Russian news agency, Ria Novosti.
When 23-year-old Rybakina booked her place in the final after beating former champion Simona Halep, Tarpischev had been equally bullish.
“It’s nice that Elena will play in the Wimbledon final, she is our product. Of course, it’s nice that she wins. We will cheer for her in the final,” Tarpischev said in the lead-up.
Rybakina said she left the Russian tennis set-up after Kazakhstan pledged better financial and training support.
She is just one of a number of Russian-born players to have switched to Kazakhstan in recent years
Rybakina all class after milestone win
Rybakina was stunned with her achievement and showed plenty of class in praising her opponent.
“I never felt anything like this before,” said the champion. “Congratulations to Ons for everything you have achieved.
“You are an inspiration to Tunisians and everybody. You played a great match.”
Jabeur, 27, started in style, breaking Rybakina in the third game of the match when the Kazakh went long with a backhand.
She followed that with a hold to love that included a delicious backhand pass angled past her opponent at the net.
Rybakina was under intense pressure on her own serve again as the set threatened to run away from her but she dug deep to hold for 3-2.
But she failed to force a single break point on the sun-baked Center Court in the first set and an error-strewn service game gifted the set to Jabeur.
As Jabeur celebrated with a fist-pump, Rybakina returned to her chair contemplating a costly 17 unforced errors.
But momentum shifted immediately at the start of the second set as Rybakina broke Jabeur before holding for a 2-0 lead.
Rybakina had now found her rhythm and Jabeur had to battle hard to hold to stay in touch.
The 23-year-old Kazakh, who stands six feet (1.84 meters) tall, then fended off three break points before breaking again to take a 4-1 lead when Jabeur went long with a forehand.
Rybakina leveled the match with an ace as Jabeur reflected on four missed break point opportunities in the set.
The 17th seed was first to strike in the decider, breaking straight away to heap the pressure on Jabeur.
The Tunisian squandered three break points in the sixth game as her frustration mounted and that proved to be her last chance.
Rybakina showed a few nerves in serving out for the set but won with her first championship point when Jabeur went long with a backhand.
Jabeur congratulated the winner, saying: “Hopefully next time it will be mine.”
“Thanks to my team for supporting and believing in me,” she added. “I love this tournament. I feel sad but that’s tennis — there can only be one winner.”