Elena Rybakina stepped up to the baseline to face match point in the Miami Open third round on Saturday night with her game in total disarray. While Paula Badosa had erected a wall on her side of the court, refusing to offer up any mistakes, Rybakina’s unforced errors piled up to the skies. She had missed countless routine backhands, she had shanked decisive drive volleys and her frustration increasingly surfaced as she trailed 6-3, 5-4. Her brief time in Florida, it seemed, was coming to an end.
Instead the pressure of standing a point from defeat steadied her. Rybakina slotted in a sweet, angled cross-court forehand winner to save the match point and, after a further flurry of point‑ending shots, the entire complexion of the match had changed. She was suddenly striking winners from all parts of the court, marching towards a third set. Badosa unloaded her own frustration at her team, covering her eyes with her left hand before mimicking forehand and backhand swings with her right. The implication was that Rybakina was swinging blindly and the ball just happened to be landing in.
None of this was a fluke. One of the most impressive developments this season has been the sustained quality that Rybakina has frequently demonstrated. At her best her shotmaking is supreme. She possesses one of the most effective weapons in the game, her first serve, which she pairs with clean, destructive ball-striking off both groundstrokes and an underrated willingness to move forward and finish off points at the net.
In just nine months Rybakina has positioned herself as one of the elite by winning her maiden grand slam title at Wimbledon, reaching the final of the Australian Open and clinching her first WTA 1000 title at Indian Wells. Along the way she has demolished numerous top players, including Iga Swiatek twice and Simona Halep in her maiden grand slam semi-final at Wimbledon. Her play has at times ascended to levels that few are capable of matching.
It could be argued that those thrashings of top players are not her most significant victories. Rybakina’s ability to hit through the best players in the world has never been in doubt but the days when everything flows perfectly are rare for all players. For the majority of the time players step on to the court operating below their best. The key to sustained greatness is learning how to compete consistently and win the matches that should not necessarily be won, which she is gradually mastering.
There are plenty of other players blessed with weapons that can eviscerate top opposition but many struggle to harness their strengths and to make considered decisions on the court. One of Rybakina’s defining characteristics is her more conservative shot selection. Even when she is inside the baseline and on the attack, she often tries to play higher percentage tennis, opting to force opponents back by attacking cross-court rather than taking on more risk by constantly changing directions and aiming for the lines. Her game has an incredibly high ceiling but its base is also improving every day, allowing her to be more consistent and resilient.
In a sport filled with players who brandish fist pumps and cheer after every successful point, Rybakina is the most composed and understated player on the tour. Crucially she has shown she can be just as calm under pressure as the image she projects.
Some of Rybakina’s biggest wins during this period have come when she relied on her self-belief and consistency to edge out difficult victories. After losing the opening set of the Wimbledon final she shook off her nerves and recovered to win the biggest match of her life. In the quarter-final of Indian Wells against Karolina Muchova a week ago she was outplayed for most of the match.
Still, as Muchova wobbled mentally during the important moments, Rybakina navigated the match like a champion. She knew that her own nerves would hold up under pressure and she was extremely solid during every decisive moment. It felt like an even greater breakthrough than her straight-sets wins over the top two players, Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka.
On Saturday night Rybakina’s self-belief was evident again as she completed the comeback from match point down in style. After playing so poorly and standing one point from defeat, the final 45 minutes of her 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 win were sublime. Rybakina elevated her own level under pressure and snatched the match from her bitter opponent’s hands. Badosa, who was ranked No 2 last year, simply could not keep up.
As she continues to back up her Wimbledon title the excitement around Rybakina grows. Even in a sport as volatile and unpredictable as women’s tennis the evidence suggests that the 23-year-old is in the process of establishing herself as one of the very best of her generation. Most importantly, between the potency of her game and the coolness of her head, the hope is that she is making the right moves to ensure that she can remain at the top for some time.