Kazakhstan, Tunisia, and even Russia will have fingers crossed as Rybakina-Jabeur showdown highlights Wimbledon final – SportsMediaz

For much of its history, Wimbledon has displayed, and at times taken pride in, its lack of political engagement. The lack of a distinct worldview had become a worldview on its own; its old-time charm and appeal meant to be a distraction from all that is wrong with the world. This is perhaps what made it all the more surprising when the All England Club made its position clear by banning Russian and Belarusian players in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And come Saturday, they may be put in yet another difficult position.

Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina, who was born in Russia and still resides in Moscow, will take on Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur in the women’s singles summit clash on Saturday. Rybakina is part of a string of players, including the likes of Alexander Bublik and Yulia Putintseva, to have migrated from Russia to Kazakhstan, whose tennis federation offered packages including stipends and access to top training facilities to promising players.

The 23-year-old, who identified as Russian up until 2018, comes into the match with a swarm of support from her former country. “Let’s congratulate the Royal Family, they will have to congratulate someone from Russia,” former Russian tennis player Andrei Chesnokov was quoted as saying by Reuters. “Russian-born star storms into Wimbledon final,” declared Russia Today, a state-controlled media outlet, after Rybakina’s semifinal win over Simona Halep. Shamil Tarpischev, president of the Russian tennis federation, congratulated her and cherished the prospect of “our product” playing the big final.

In a sport where competitors are not representing their countries or any institution as much as they are representing themselves, Rybakina, who narrowly missed out on a medal for Kazakhstan at the Tokyo Olympics, has asserted she is just revelling in the opportunity to play for a Grand Slam title.

“What does it mean for you to feel? I’m playing tennis, so for me, I’m enjoying my time here. I feel for the players who couldn’t come here, but I’m just enjoying playing here on the biggest stage, enjoying my time and trying to do my best,” she replied when asked if she felt Russian in her heart.

No matter what her stance is, the prospect of handing the prestigious Venus Rosewater Dish to a player Russia has announced to be their own will put Wimbledon in a difficult spot. And perhaps more quietly in the background, her opponent’s nationality may play just as dominant a role in the narrative of the result.

The minister of happiness

Ons Jabeur has become fondly known in her home country as the ‘Minister of Happiness.’ The ever-smiling Jabeur is as charismatic on the court as she is seen to be kind off it. After her semifinal win against Germany’s Tatjana Maria, once the customary handshakes were done, Jabeur pulled Maria by the hand and brought her to the centre of Centre Court to receive the praise from the crowd that her fairytale run at SW19 deserved. It was a gesture that won tennis fans’ hearts all over the world.

Last year, Jabeur became the first Arab and first African to crack the top 10 of the world rankings. Following her win on Thursday, she became the first Arab woman since 1968 to reach the final of a Major. Perhaps also due to her nationality, her breakthrough year on tour is now getting the recognition it merits. She has now reached the final of five of her last seven events, and become the World No. 2. In the shadow of Iga Swiatek – who is the only player to have won more matches than her in 2022 – she was one of the favourites to lift the title at the grass Major this year.

At Centre Court on Saturday, the Tunisian not only has the opportunity to cement her place at the summit of the game, but also to give visibility to a nation and region that few have given before her.

The matchup

Despite the duo’s nationalities dominating the buildup, the matchup between their contrasting styles could make for an entertaining final. If Rybakina sets the tempo, her timing and power are hard to cope with. But if there is a player who can disrupt her tempo, in the form that she is in, it has to be Jabeur.

On her day, not a single player on the women’s tour can match the power of Rybakina’s big-hitting game. Her groundstrokes are hit with great force, and if given the time from the baseline, she races into big leads by hitting through her opponent with ease.

Rybakina has, however, struggled with consistency. Her massive game can begin to leak unforced errors when her rhythm is disrupted, which is where Jabeur’s versatility and dynamism could come into play. The Tunisian’s all-court game is largely aided by her movement, which allows her to glide across the grass and construct points at her own pace. It also allows her to put more balls back into court, and create highlight reel-worthy winners from impossible angles.

The match is also a classic case of serve vs return. Rybakina’s powerful serve is a force to cope with (51% of her first serves have been unreturned at the event so far). Jabeur, on the other hand, while putting up solid serving numbers herself, has returned in greater volume and with more accuracy than any other player at the Championships.

No matter what the result, Centre Court is set for a highly watchable and perhaps controversial spectacle on Saturday

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