WIMBLEDON: The Russian Tennis Federation was quick to claim Elena Rybakina as “our product” on her run to the women's title at Wimbledon.
They then praised her training program in the country after she won the Venus Rosewater Dish as Wimbledon champion while representing Kazakhstan.
“It’s the Russian school, after all. She played here with us for a long time, and then in Kazakhstan,” Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpishchev told sports website Championat on Saturday after Rybakina beat Ons Jabeur 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 on Centre Court.
The 23-year-old Rybakina was born in Moscow and played in the Russian system until 2018, when financial issues led to her nationality switch.
There's been no official reaction from the Kremlin on Rybakina's Wimbledon success, but some commentators have claimed her victory as a Russian achievement and a symbolic snub to the All England Club's ban on players representing Russia and Belarus.
Players from those countries were banned from the Wimbledon tournament because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Some Russian state media outlets emphasized Rybakina's roots in Moscow, with others opting to call her simply a “representative of Kazakhstan.”
The last Russian woman to win a Grand Slam singles title was Maria Sharapova at the French Open in 2014. Moscow-born Sofia Kenin, who left Russia as a baby and plays for the United States, won the Australian Open in 2020.
Kazakhstan, meanwhile, is ecstatic at having its first Grand Slam singles champion.
“Kazakhstani tennis player Elena Rybakina has achieved a historic victory in the extremely prestigious Wimbledon tournament. I heartily congratulate this outstanding athlete!” President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev wrote on Twitter.
Rybakina's win is the culmination of a long-term plan for tennis in Kazakhstan. The oil and gas-rich Central Asian nation has a long tradition of homegrown success in sports like boxing and cycling but has often relied on recruiting talented tennis players from Russia.
Rybakina, known for the big serve which has brought a tour-leading 253 aces this year, made the switch at 19 when her career stalled because of financial issues. The Kazakhstan Tennis Federation stepped in with an offer — represent them in exchange for the cash needed to support the global lifestyle of a tennis player. Rybakina said this week she feels like she lives on tour rather than in any one place.
When Rybakina — nervous, barely smiling, seemingly not quite sure what she had achieved — climbed into the stands at Centre Court on Saturday to celebrate with her team, she embraced first KTF president Bulat Utemuratov, then Yaroslava Shvedova, the former player who has become her mentor. Shvedova, similarly to Rybakina, was born in Moscow, switched allegiance to Kazakhstan in 2008 and won two Grand Slam doubles titles.
Rybakina's victory also comes at a tense time in relations between Russia and Kazakhstan.
The year began with Russia deploying troops to its Central Asian neighbour to suppress protests which turned violent. The government in Kazakhstan welcomed that move but has been notably reluctant to endorse Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which started the following month. President Tokayev said in front of Putin at a televised conference in St. Petersburg last month that Kazakhstan would not recognize the two Russia-backed separatist governments in eastern Ukraine.
Rybakina has been guarded in her comments on the invasion.
“I just want the war to end as soon as possible. Peace, yeah,” she said after her quarterfinal match.
Of the ban on players representing Russia, Rybakina said: “When I heard this, this is not something you want to hear because we are playing sport. Everybody wants to compete. They were not choosing where they born.”