Wimbledon finalist downplays links to Russia

Elena Rybakina overpowered former champion Simona Halep 6-3 6-3 to set up a Wimbledon final against Ons Jabeur, yet questions about her links to Russia continue to fester.

Rybakina, the ace leader in the women’s tournament, secured the impressive win on her first match point, wrapping up proceedings in 76 minutes.

The Moscow-born 23-year-old spent most of her life living in Russia but represents Kazakhstan after switching allegiance from her country of birth in 2018, with the extra financial help on offer triggering the move.

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The decision has paid off handsomely for the player and her adopted nation as the world No.23 became the first Kazakh player to reach a grand slam final.

But her strong Wimbledon campaign has also been picked up by her native country, with the state run TV network Russia Today, running the headline on its website reading “Russian-born star storms into Wimbledon final”.

Russian and Belarusian players were banned from this year’s Wimbledon following the invasion of Ukraine, in part to prevent the possibility of a member of the royal family handing over the trophy to a Russian winner, which could then be used as a tool of propaganda by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Regardless of which country she represents, some commentators have suggested The All England Club faces a dilemma if she wins the tournament.

Rybakina is one of a host of Russian-born players to have taken the path to Kazakhstan in recent years, yet she was asked early in her post-match press conference whether she was “representing Russia at all in this tournament.”

“I actually answered this question yesterday and as I said yesterday, I can repeat it now, I’m playing for Kazakhstan for a long time and I’m really happy representing Kazakhstan,” she said.

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“They believed in me and there is no more question about how I feel.

“It’s just, already long time, my journey as a Kazakh player. I played Olympics, I played Fed Cup (for Kazakhstan) so I think I gave an answer already yesterday about this.”

However, the reporter didn’t let up and continued by asking:

“In your heart, do you feel Russian still or?” he asked.

Rybakina replied: “What does it mean for you to feel (that)? I mean, I’m playing tennis so for me I’m enjoying my time here.

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“I feel for the players who couldn’t come here, but I’m just enjoying playing here on the biggest stage and enjoying my time and trying to do my best.

“I got so much help and support. I’m feeling just the support of the people and very happy to represent Kazakhstan because I think I’m also bringing some results, which are very good for the sport in Kazakhstan. Yeah, for me it’s tough question just to say exactly what I feel.”

Rbakina added: “I think it was very good timing because they were looking for the player. I was looking for some help. They believed in me. So I think it was very good combination. We just find each other. They believed in me . They made everything possible for me to keep playing, keep improving. I had all the conditions to practice and everything. Of course, it helped a lot. They are still helping and supporting me. I’m really happy that I’m representing Kazakhstan already for a long time.”

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When pressed about her thoughts on the blanket ban on Russian and Belarusian players, Rybakina expressed sympathy.

“When I heard this, I mean… This is not something you want to hear because we are playing sport. Everybody wants to compete. They were not choosing where they born. I feel it for them because everybody wants to compete at the biggest tournament , at Wimbledon. Yeah, just hope that next year is going to be back to normal,” she said.

Asked if that response meant she hopes for peace in Ukraine, Rybakina answered “I agree.”

“I just want the war to end as soon as possible. Peace, yeah,” she said.

Rybakina, who upset Serena Williams at Roland-Garros in the fourth round last year, will play Ons Jabeur in the final, which will be the first Wimbledon final since 1962 featuring two women both appearing in their first grand slam title match.

“Very tricky player,” Rybakina said about Jabeur. “It’s not going to be easy to play against her.”

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