Wimbledon 2022: Two women chasing the same prize and the contrasts couldn't be greater
The Tunisian has cut a warm, open figure after matches, relaxed in her own skin, generous about opponents, laughing about her barbecue obsession and revelling in the title conferred on her by homeland of the “Minister of Happiness”.
By contrast Elena Rybakina has not been relaxed in her own skin. It’s Russian skin - she was born there - but here she’s representing Kazakhstan. Two press conferences running she’s been hit with questions about her transfer of allegiances and has felt somewhat under siege.
What does she feel - Russian or Kazak? Is it true she still lives in Moscow? What does she have to say about the war in Ukraine? “I answered these questions already,” she said exasperatedly after her semi-final, before adding, hopefully to close the subject: “I’m playing for Kazakhstan for a long time. I’m happy representing them. They believed in me. There is no more [to be said] about how I feel.”
Country or adopted country, the finalists are blazing a trail. Neither Tunisia nor Kazakhstan - and Rybakina made the switch three years ago - have had the opportunity to acclaim a Slam winner, women or men’s.
“It's amazing for the sport,” said Jabeur. “Tennis likes new faces so we're bringing new faces to you guys. No one from Kazakhstan has won before. I’m really happy for Elena, happy that she’s representing Kazakhstan. I’m doing the same in a different way. It’s amazing that we [might be able] to inspire a new generation [in our countries]. To show that nothing is impossible, really.”
Jabeur is 27, Rybakina 23, and the younger woman thanked the more experienced player for a random act of kindness the first time they met. “We were playing WTA and she was very nice to help me find the club because she had a car. What she has achieved already [Jabeur is No2 in the world] is amazing and happening in front of my eyes. We are going like together on this journey, making history.”
They have contrasting styles on court as well. Jabeur likes to slice while Rybakina wields a huge serve (top speed: 122mph). “She serves really well,” admitted Jabeur, “so my main goal must be to return as many balls as I can to make her really work hard to win the points.
“She’s an aggressive player and if you give her a little bit of time she will take [the match] away. It’s going to be an interesting final because I know that my game could really bother her with a lot of slices. I know [her] type of player usually wins the points in two, three shots. I’m just going to do what I do on the court.”
Different personalities too. Jabeur is given to much expressiveness on court, unlike Rybakina. Does that kind of player present the greater challenge? “Maybe it’s better [to play that type] and not someone who screams a lot - ‘C’mon!’ I respect her, she’s very shy even away from the court, but maybe I’ll be the one screaming after the final.”
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