Russia-born Elena Rybakina won the women's singles title at Wimbledon on Saturday, shocking the tennis world by beating favorite Ons Jabeur and causing major embarrassment for tournament organizers, who had banned Russians from competing.
No. 3 seed Jabeur, from Tunisia, had been bidding to make history as the first Arab woman to seal a Grand Slam singles title. But, despite a strong start, she lost her nerve as Rybakina prevailed 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 for her first major title and the first tennis Grand Slam honor for Kazakhstan.
"I was super nervous before the match, during the match, and I'm happy it's finished," she said courtside. Rybakina, 23, was born in Moscow and started her career as a Russian before switching her allegiance to Kazakhstan in 2018. "The Kazakhstan Federation made me an offer, and the decision was easier. I changed my citizenship to Kazakhstan because they believed in me and they offered. I was not so good when they offered. So they believed in me, and they're helping me a lot," she told the WTA Tour website in 2020.
Russian and Belarusian players were banned from competing by Wimbledon because of the invasion of Ukraine. Organizers said allowing players from the countries would cause issues with Britain's government should Russia use her success at the tournament for propaganda. It was the only Grand Slam tournament to impose the ban, which was criticized by many players and led to the London grass event being stripped of its ranking points this year.
Russia to Kazakhstan
Wimbledon stuck to its guns despite the backlash from players such as the men's defending champion, Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, who said it was unfair to punish individual tennis players for the actions of a country's government and military. But, in the end, exactly what Wimbledon officials were trying to avoid happened. Britain's Duchess of Cambridge had to present the famous Venus Rosewater Dish to a Russia-born player.
Given that Rybakina had officially changed her nationality in tennis terms, there was nothing Wimbledon could do. The All England Club, which runs the tournament, had already permitted Russia-born Natela Dzalamidze to compete after she changed her allegiance to Georgia just this June. Given Rybakina that switched back in 2018, the Wimbledon organizers' hands were tied.
'Minister of happiness'
Jabeur, 27, was looking to end a long wait for Arab women at Wimbledon, which first took place in 1884 in south London. She made history by being the first Arab woman to make the final of any Grand Slam tournament. She was roared on at Wimbledon's Centre Court by Tunisian officials and even Hollywood star Tom Cruise.
Tunisian Youth and Sport Minister Kamel Deguiche had said before the final that, whatever happened, Jabeur should be given the symbolic title of "minister of happiness'' and even become an official ambassador of the country for her success.
Author Mark Meadows
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