The 2020 Dubai Duty Free Women’s Open finalist Elena Rybakina
The 2020 Dubai Duty Free Women’s Open finalist Elena Rybakina Image Credit: Alaric Gomes/Gulf News

Dubai: The 2020 Dubai Duty Free Women’s Open finalist Elena Rybakina has insisted that not even the ongoing pandemic has affected her prior goal of being the best in the world in the near future.

Rybakina, who took then world No. 1 Simona Halep all the way before losing in the final in three sets in February, has chosen Dubai to conduct her preseason preparations heading towards a more optimistic 2021.

After flying back home to Moscow for a few days in February prior to heading for the North American hardcourt season starting with Indian Wells and Miami, Rybakina could not touch her racket for the next three-and-a-half months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She eventually resumed training in Bratislava, Slovakia after her coach Stefano Vukov managed to join her there. When the WTA resumed play in New York in August, she lost her return match to Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova. And then at the 2020 US Open, the 21-year-old made it to the second round.

Alaric Gomes/Gulf News

After returning to Europe, Rybakina exacted her revenge on Alexandrova at the Italian Open, but squandered a chance to serve out the match in a third round loss to Yulia Putintseva.

Rybakina’s breakthrough came during the 2020 season, during which she has led the WTA with five finals, including four in her first five events of the year. Her fifth final of the year and first since the resumption of the tour came at the Internationaux de Strasbourg, but she lost in the final in three sets to No. 5 Elina Svitolina.

Physically broken down and suffering from the flu for a month due to changing weather, Rybakina could not carry this success to the next major, losing in the second round to Fiona Ferro at the 2020 French Open.

The 2020 Dubai Duty Free Women’s Open finalist Elena Rybakina
Image Credit: Alaric Gomes/Gulf News

“Well, it has been a weird and different 2020 season on all counts. But this has not changed anything for me as far as my goals go,” Rybakina told Gulf News while meeting up with a batch of young tennis players at Fujairah’s Tennis and Country Club.

“I still have the same goals. By next season I need to be in the top 10 or even higher if I can achieve it. The good thing is that I have a lot of time to prepare for the future and I am going to use this as a launch pad for the remaining part of my career as a tennis player. Not often do we have this luxury of taking such a long break and getting another chance to revisit our basics.”

Rybakina landed in the UAE on November 13 and intends to stay here at least until the end of the year, after which she and her coach Stefano Vukov and fitness coach Dario Novak will travel onward to Australia. “I can foresee that much of next season will be spent in competing and there won’t be too much time to focus on training and getting the basics in order. So, this is a really important time for me to practise and prepare well for next season or the seasons ahead,” Rybakina said.

The 21-year-old is especially looking ahead to next season as the postponed Tokyo Olympics will be held, thus giving her a chance to compete for her adopted country of Kazakhstan. In all likelihood, Rybakina will make it for Tokyo 2020 on her singles ranking, and she already has plans to team up with two-time Grand Slam champion and fellow Kazakh, Yaroslava Shvedova.

“Hopefully the Olympics will happen and I am really looking forward to playing as it’s going to be a totally new experience for me. Besides being a great opportunity to meet all the great players representing their countries and experiencing a different feel about an Olympics, I would want to see where I stand on a truly international stage,” she said. “Yaroslava and I have already spoken and we intend to be doubles partners starting off with the Australian Open.”

An aggressive baseliner, Rybakina generates effortless power, both on her groundstrokes and serve while being equally lethal in her power with both her forehand and backhand. With her powerful serve, Rybakina has led the tour in aces during 2020 with 192 through to October 2020. Her strength on serve is reflected by the fact that she was won 78 per cent of her service games during 2020.

Rybakina plays with a very calm demeanour, and believes she can defeat any opponent — something she proved at this year’s Dubai Duty Free Women’s Open with wins against two top 10 players — 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin and World No. 3 Karolina Pliskova — en route to losing in three sets against Halep.

“I still have a lot of stuff to improve on, both technically and physically. It is good thing that I am calm, but sometimes I need this sort of energy to show my real self. I think it is a bit of everything that I still have to improve and still need to work on. It is not one strategic thing,” Rybakina said.

“One has to be mentally prepared all the time. And this preparedness has to have a sort of consistency throughout one’s career as a professional. For example, I need to be focused even after matches so that I can do all things to be best of my ability. In short, I need to have the true mind of a champion.”