One of the most fascinating things in tennis is witnessing the ascent of special players. Whether they do it gradually or out of the blue, young athletes experience a breakthrough and emerge from virtual obscurity, revealing themselves to the world.
I’ve mentioned special players because, in order to reach a higher plateau (that of champions), it is necessary that the stars that aligned to propitiate their emergence stay that way for quite some time. Astrological metaphors aside, the careers of up-and-coming sportspeople are laden with unpredictability and with setbacks that might shatter the prospects of the most promising ones. Timing is essential to avoid health issues, injuries, or even growing pains that might be acceptable and expected at other times, but that might compromise an entire career if occurring at the worst possible moment.
This long premise is needed to approach what Elena Rybakina has done in 2020, because it’s the token of a special player. And if she’ll be able to keep up with what she’s accomplished over the last few weeks, then we will be able to say that we were all witnesses to the surge of something even bigger, perhaps a Top 10 player, perhaps a champion.
In order to talk about her, I need to go back to her beginnings. Setting up the table, perhaps perfunctorily, is essential to understanding her growth and evolution, which have transformed her into the unique player she is today.
Elena Rybakina was born in Moscow on June 17, 1999, and started playing tennis at six. She’s said in an interview that tennis was a “second choice” because of her height: she dabbled for a bit with gymnastics and ice skating, but every coach told her clearly that she was too tall to be a standout (well, if you’re tall you do stand out, but I don’t think that the irony translates in Russian as well). At her first ice skating training, all newcomers were split into two groups: those who could hope to reach official competitions, and those who could only do it for fun – Elena ended up in the latter.
Racquets and fuzzy balls then became the default option, but, while initially a rebound game for the heartbroken child, tennis soon became the real love affair for Elena. She very simply enjoys playing, and such enjoyment has remained through the years, even when sacrifice and hard work became staples in order to reach loftier heights – tennis is still a game to her.
After a few local tournaments, here comes the big stage of international junior tournaments. As an understudy, Rybakina’s career was marked by good-yet-not-too-good results. She played quite a lot (95 wins, 35 losses), and after a few bouts she began to be called up for team competition by the Russian federation, becoming an athlete of national interest.
She then reached the junior Top 100, but didn’t become a household name till the very end of her junior career. In 2017, she reached the semis at the French Open, the quarters at Flushing Meadows, and above all won the Bonfiglio Trophy, a Grade A tournament (just as important as a Major), in May. At the Milan event, she beat Wang Xiyu in the second round, and Iga Swiatek in the final, although it should be noted that the Pole is two years younger than Rybakina.
The Bonfiglio final can still be watched on YouTube: that day, Swiatek leapt out of the blocks, finding herself ahead with a score of 6-1 6-5, and about to serve the match out. At the decisive moment, though, she couldn’t seal the deal (especially because of a high double fault tally), paving the way for Rybakina’s 1-6 7-6 6-3 comeback win. Therefore, the takeaway was that Swiatek was more talented albeit more mercurial, and that she was the one who would leave a mark on women’s tennis.
Thanks to the results she racked up over the last few months as a junior player, at an age when most of her peers had already turned pro, Elena reached her highest ranking at N.3 in December 2017. Throughout her junior days, she trained at the Spartak Moscow club under Andrey Chesnokov (who needs no introductions) and Evgenia Kulikovskaya (former world N.91 in 2003), while her fitness regiment was managed by Irina Kiseleva, former modern Pentathlon world champion. Obviously, they weren’t her exclusive coaches, but rather mentored the whole young crux of the tennis club.
Meanwhile, Rybakina found her feet at the ITF level, and, like with her junior career, she didn’t stand out as particularly precious, but rather matured at a steady pace. At the end of 2017, she was the 420th player in the world, and suited herself for one more season of ranking-climbing. In 2018, she won a 15K in Kazana, while also debuting on the WTA Tour thanks to a wildcard for the St. Petersburg indoor event. There, she reached the quarter finals by knocking out in a major upset the then world N.7 Caroline Garcia (2-6 7-6 6-4) before bowing out against Julia Goerges. The 125 points she earned represented a shade less than half of her season’s haul, and boosted her ranking up to the 191st spot.
Elina Svitolina Not Giving Up On Grand Slam Dreams
The 25-year-old tennis star speaks out about her chances of winning a major title in the future.
Ukraine’s top player Elina Svitolina is hoping that she can one day emulate the likes of Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep by using her experience on the WTA Tour to guide her to Grand Slam success.
The world No.5 says the openness of the women’s tour makes her believe that she can still win a major title. Since 2018 seven different women have won Grand Slam titles with Halep and Naomi Osaka being the one players to have won multiple trophies within that period. As for 25-year-old Svitolina, she is yet to contest a major final. Although she did reach the semifinals of Wimbledon and the US Open last year.
Speaking to tennis website BTU, Svitolina says the diverse range of major winners is a confidence boost for her. Saying the key aspect for her to potentially succeed is maintaining a high level of physical and mental health throughout a two-week period at a Grand Slam.
“In recent years, we see that tennis players had different paths to victory. Someone won right away as soon as they announced themselves on the tour. Others patiently gained experience to finally win the major, for example, Simone Halep and Caroline Wozniacki. Different paths are also due to different styles of play,” she explained.
“It gives me hope and energy to work hard so that one day I can take this chance. The key point for me is to keep my best level for two weeks. This requires a lot of effort, both psychological and physical. Everything should work at the same time. And you need to add a little luck.”
Svitolina is yet to fully commit to playing at the next major event, which will be the US Open in August. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tournament will be taking place behind closed doors for the first time in history and strict measures are in place with players being kept in what is described as a ‘bubble.’ Although some have reservations about playing in New York amid a rising number of Coronavirus cases in the country. On Friday health officials reported 66,528 new cases.
Prior to the US Open, the women’s Tour will officially restart on August 3rd at the Palermo Open in Italy. Although Svitolina says there are many ‘unanswered questions’ about returning to competitive tennis and the potential travel restrictions she may encounter.
“They (the WTA) organize video conferences every week, sometimes they invite ITF or USTA representatives, since the US Open is now in the centre of discussions,” she said.
“So, they inform us. But, I think, it all depends on local authorities. As we can see, the rules vary from country to country, changes occur every week. There are still many unanswered questions.”
Svitolina started 2020 by winning 11 out of 17 matches played before the sport was suspended due to the pandemic. At her most recent tournament in Monterrey, she won her 14th title by dropping only one set in five matches played.
Svitolina’s Grand Slams record
|Year||Australian Open||Roland Garros||Wimbledon||US Open|
Dayana Yastremska Labels Controversial Twitter Photo A ‘Misunderstanding’
The world No.25 has been forced to delete photos from her social media accounts after a gesture to support anti-racism backfired.
Ukrainian Tennis star Dayana Yastremska has been forced to remove a photo from social media and issue a statement after she was accused of being racially insensitive.
The 20-year-old tennis star attracted criticism on Thursday after uploading a photo of herself in different poses with the phrase ‘equality’ assigned to it. However, the images were controversial as they show Yastremska as half white and half back. Black facing, which is where a non-black person darker their skins to represent the race, has recently been under the spotlight in the wake of the Black Live Matter movement. Some episodes from TV shows such as The Mighty Boosh, Little Britain and The League of Gentlemen have been removed from online platforms due to the black facing of characters.
In the aftermath of posting the photo, two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka commented on Instagram ‘Girl I know you didn’t just do blackface,’ with a skull emoji. Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and Haitian father, has spoken publicly about her support for the Black Live Matter movement. Yastremska responded to the comment with a prayer emoji.
Yastremska removed her photos from Twitter and Instagram soon after she received backlash online, however, she insists that she never meant to cause any offence. Posting a statement on Twitter, the world No.25 apologize to those who she offended. Although she insists that her photo has been ‘misunderstood’ and she doesn’t consider it to be a ‘black face.’
“Earlier today I posted pictures that I thought would spread a message of equality. It clearly did not and has been misunderstood,” she wrote on Twitter yesterday.
“I have been warned about the negative impact but I did not — and still don’t — consider it a ‘black face’.
“I did not intend to caricature but to share my feelings about the current situation: we should all be treated as equal.
“I am so disappointed my message has been corrupted. I sincerely apologise to all the people I have offended.”
Former Wimbledon junior finalist Yastremska has won three WTA titles so far in her career and has earned more than $1.8 million in prize money. In January she reached a ranking high of 21st.
WTA’s Restart Efforts Overshadowed By Likely Cancellation Of All Chinese Tournaments
Big blow dealt to the WTA calendar as Chinese Authorities cancel all international events in China for 2020, including the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.
After many weeks of relative silence, the WTA had a very eventful day on Thursday releasing its revised mechanism for the calculation of the WTA Ranking and confirming some changes to its calendar. However, the organization managing the women’s pro tour had to face some terrible news coming from Asia, where the General Administration of Sport of China in an unexpected move decided to wipe away all international sports events in China, casting an ominous shadow over some of the most lucrative tournaments in the WTA calendar.
After the ATP announced on Monday a new ranking system based on results obtained in the last 22 months (from March 2019 to December 2020), the WTA unveiled a substantially similar system that allows players to maintain the points obtained in 2019 if they are unable or unwilling to participate to the corresponding tournament in 2020 or if they achieve a worse result in this year’s event. The only significant difference with the ATP’s new ranking system consists of allowing players to count only the best 16 results achieved in the considered 22-month window, while the men’s tour allows to count up to 18 results.
“In order to balance fairness and flexibility for all players, the WTA Rankings will generally follow the ‘Better of 2019 and 2020’ point model, in alignment with the ATP Tour,” the WTA said in a statement. “In reaching this decision, various elements were considered including the provisional 2020 revised calendar, various travel restrictions, varying levels of player comfort of traveling to compete, as well as the elimination of player commitment requirements for the remainder of 2020.”
Furthermore, the WTA announced two addition to its provisional 2020 calendar that sees professional tournaments resume on 3rd August with the Palermo Ladies Open in Palermo, Italy. In fact, on the week of 10th August there will be one new event on clay in Europe and one on hard courts in the USA: they will be the Prague Open in Prague, Czech Republic and the Bluegrass Orthopaedics in Lexington, Kentucky.
The former event was originally planned to take place in the spring and was tentatively included in an earlier draft of the new calendar, but then almost immediately dropped. The latter tournament replaces the WTA International Citi Open, due to take place in Washington, D.C. at the same time as the ATP 500 event.
“After an exhaustive effort collaborating with all of our stakeholders over many months, we committed to hosting the WTA tournament as part of our event in August so that we could provide playing opportunities for WTA players and continue to showdown women’s tennis to our community – said the Citi Open in a statement posted on their social media accounts – However, given the unique circumstances and requirements this year, we understand and support Octagon [that owns the rights to the event] and the WTA’s decision to hold the tournament as a completely separate event in 2020. We wish them and the local organizers in Lexington, Kentucky all the best for a safe and successful tournament. We still plan to present women’s tennis during this year’s Citi Open and look forward to hosting the women’s tournament in Washington, D. C. next year and long into the future”.
But the mood at the WTA Offices in St. Petersburg, Florida changed quickly when a press release coming from the Chinese press agency Xinhua announced a decision by the General Administration of Sport of China to cancel all international events due to be held in China in 2020, with the only exception of test events for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games. This seems to include all tennis tournaments planned for the months of September and October, in particular the WTA Premier 5 in Wuhan, the WTA Premier Mandatory in Beijing and above all the WTA Championships in Shenzhen, as well as the ATP Masters 1000 Shanghai Rolex Masters.
General Administration of Sports published guiding principles of resuming sports. Highlight: technically no international sports event is allowed to be hosted in China except the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic test matches. Asian Champions League? The 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying? pic.twitter.com/y4Q0yazVBP
— Titan Sports Plus (@titan_plus) July 9, 2020
The WTA relies on the year-end WTA Championships for more than 60 percent of its annual turnover, and overall is extremely dependent on the revenues generated by its Chinese swing during the Fall. The lack of official comments from the WTA Headquarters seems to suggest the announcement came out of the blue and no contingency plan is presently in place to limit the effect of a complete cancellation of the Chinese tournaments.
At this late stage, it appears problematic to replace those big events with other tournaments in other locations around the world, not only for the difficulty to source a sufficient number of high-paying sponsors, but also due to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that has led many countries to place heavy restrictions to international travel.
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