Elena Rybakina conquers ‘nerves’ and Shelby Rogers in start to title defence

“On grass everything changes quickly,” Elena Rybakina said after her opening match against Shelby Rogers. She proved the truth of that on Centre Court, beginning her defence of her women’s singles title with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 win that addressed the worries about her fitness and demonstrated her impressive composure.

The 24-year-old has struggled with the after-effects of a virus since the French Open, when she was forced to withdraw from her third-round match after two sleepless, feverish nights. The enervating effects followed her to Berlin, where she lost her second-round match, and then to Eastbourne, where she pulled out of the competition altogether as a precaution.

The Kazakhstani has been unable to keep to her usual training schedule and before this match declined the offer of an extended morning warm-up on Centre Court. After her rocket-powered climb to the 2022 title – where she didn’t drop a set until the quarter-finals – she began here with a double fault and was broken from deuce in her first game.

“I didn’t start that well, I was not moving that great,” Rybakina said. “I needed the full set, which is not the greatest, to feel better and start playing and raise the level.”

Rogers, meanwhile, came into this tournament on a personal high, having recently become engaged to the ice-hockey player John Slavik and with the memory of beating Rybakina on grass in their last meeting in 2022. The American, ranked 49, looked more than prepared to take on the powerful groundstrokes coming her way with her own clean hitting and the two women’s comparable skills and attacking style put them on a collision course with both constantly chasing the killer hit. At one point in the first set, the average rally length was under two shots.

The light under the Centre Court roof had a ghostly hue and an insistent hammering from above indicated that, outside, people were getting very wet indeed. As if to make up for all the action not happening elsewhere, the tempo inside began to mount. Rybakina smashed a win from a rare 10-shot rally and Rogers, too, was finding her stride, firing a deep backhand winner past her opponent that had her coaching team shaking their heads in admiration.

With nearly three-quarters of her first serves landing in, Rogers, who had lost her past six matches against top-10 opponents, was showing a kind of confidence she hasn’t shown since beating Ashleigh Barty – world No 1 at the time – at the US Open two years ago. The 30-year-old held the break to take the first set, before a double fault in her following service game opened the gate for Rybakina’s roar back.

Before the final point of the first set Rybakina had stood on the baseline wheeling and stretching her arms as if starting her warm-up for the first time. Now power and motility seemed to flood back into her limbs. She won the first game to love and forced a break from an advantage down in the second. Serve after serve fired out of the barrel and past Rogers’ racket.

The crowd, who had been favouring the underdog, now applauded appreciatively as the reigning champion’s fluid movement set her up for repeated winners. For the first time, a quiet smile crept into her expression. It was less a shift in momentum than the feeling that Rogers had parked her car on the hill but forgotten to put on the handbrake. The second set simply rolled away from her, picking up pace as Rybakina sent forehands fizzing across the width of the court.

Having won only one game in the second set, Rogers left the court for a long break before the third, but it didn’t slow down her opponent, who lost only five points on serve in the latter two sets. A break down, Rogers was offered only one chance to find a way back, when her inspired review in the seventh game proved her ace was in by the width of a parmesan shaving. But she couldn’t make it count, hitting long at deuce and double-faulting to lose the game. Rybakina served out to love.

Rybakina said her experience of playing on Centre Court hadn’t helped much on her return: “I was really nervous and I cannot even hide it.” She arrived at the tournament last year with no personal expectations and barely any name recognition; this year she has had to rent a larger house that will accommodate her increased entourage.

“This is unusual for me,” she said, adding that her team have been helping to deal with the new external pressures and her increasing expectations of herself. “It’s a new chapter, accepting the challenges. This is the level I want to keep. Of course I want to go higher, but the most important [thing] is not to go up quick and then fall quickly … You cannot always have good days.”


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