Elena Rybakina
Elena Rybakina. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships runner-up Elena Rybakina’s coach Stefano Vukov believes his student holds the promise of being a world No. 1 player in the near future.

The London-based Vukov, who replaced Andrei Chesnokov last season, has overseen the rise of the 20-year-old Rybakina to her current World No. 17 on the WTA Tour. Turning professional in 2014, the big-hitting Russian-born Kazakh, has risen nearly 150 spots in the WTA Rankings over the past 12 months alone.

Into the bargain, she has pocketed two titles on the WTA Tour, while being seeded for the first time at the 2020 Australian Open. She has been generous in her praise of her new coach, the former ATP player Vukov, under whose tutelage she has already won the Bucharest Open in 2019 and the Hobart International in January this year.

 Elena Rybakina and coach Stefano Vukov in Dubai earlier this year
Elena Rybakina and coach Stefano Vukov in Dubai earlier this year Image Credit: Courtesy Stefano Vukov

Vukov, who joined her as a travelling coach in 2019, has seen the results fall in place. But more importantly, he has been at close quarters to see how hard his student is prepared to work on and off the courts and become a better player and person.

“She’s made six WTA finals and won two titles, along the way defeating some of the top-10 players. For me, this is simply magnificent as she’s got great attitude and she is able to assimilate a lot of information and transfer that on the court straightaway. There aren’t many like her at the moment,” Vukov told Gulf News in a chat from his London residence.

“She’s very calm and very easy to work with as well. As I see it, she is potentially a top-10 player to start with. But Elena’s goal is to be the world number one, and we are all working towards that.”

After winning the Hobart International, Rybakina made quite an impression at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium while scalping the red-hot Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in their first-round encounter. And to prove that it wasn’t a fluke, the lanky Moscow-born Kazakh girl went on to pack off qualifier Katerina Siniakova, second seed Karolina Pliskova and eighth seed Petra Martic before stumbling against top seed Simona Halep in three sets in the final on February 22.

Rybakina continued her good work at the Qatar Open the following week winning her first two rounds in three sets before fatigue caught up forcing her to hand top seed and world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty a walkover.

“Our work is always concentrated on getting better each day. We just expect to improve and continue this improvement. The results, both of us feel, will be due to all the hard work that we put in on the court,” Vukov said.

“I always tell her that she shouldn’t focus on the end results, but just take things step by step on how to improve and accept whatever comes her way.”

Croatia’s Vukov, who turned 33 in March, has been the true guide to his young student. A regular player on the ITF Circuit before giving up in 2009, Vukov has always kept on stressing the importance on hard work, both on and off the court. For the moment, Rybakina is at her Moscow residence and passing on training tips can be quite an effort, at times.

“It can be very tough to stay motivated, especially when you are young. But I feel that for her the age really doesn’t matter. I believe she will be at her best, whenever tennis starts again,” he said.

“I feel it’s a good time for her to spend with her family as she wasn’t too much with them the past few years now. This season, she’s already played 25 matches, so this pandemic time will give her a real big break both mentally and physically. I feel she was already close to breaking into the top-10, had she got a chance to play in Indian Wells and Miami in March, as she didn’t have many points to defend in both places.”

With the entire world brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic, Vukov knows that Rybakina will be in prime form to start the tour afresh. “She is young and hungry to start playing again. She is very motivated and she’s been following the diet provided by the nutritionist. I have various fitness routines that she’s following in addition to special vision exercises that she can do from home by herself,” he said.

“I’ve also got her watching past matches of the season to see where and how she can get better. There have been plenty of matches that have happened from where she can learn and assimilate how to handle different situations for the future.”

The ATP and WTA have suspended their seasons through until at least mid-July and it’s being expected that this postponement will be further extended in the coming weeks. Earlier this week, former world No. 1 Rafael Nadal has stated his belief that he has played his last tennis of 2020, while predicting the sport won’t return until next year’s Australian Open.