Russian-born Elena Rybakina powered back from a set down against Ons Jabeur to win the Wimbledon title on Saturday, denying the Tunisian world number two the chance to make African tennis history.
Jabeur raced out of the blocks but the 17th seed regrouped and dropped just four more games on the way to a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory.
Russian and Belarusian players were banned from Wimbledon this year following the invasion of Ukraine but Moscow-born Rybakina switched her allegiance to Kazakhstan in 2018.
The 23-year-old, who had never previously progressed beyond the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam, said she had been “super nervous” before and during the match on a sun-baked Centre Court.
“I did not expect to be in the second week of a Grand Slam at Wimbledon,” she said. “To be a winner is just amazing. I don’t have the words to say how happy I am.”
She added: “I want to congratulate Ons for a great match…. You have an amazing game. We don’t have someone like this on tour and it is a joy to play against you. I ran so much, I don’t think I need to do fitness (work) anymore.”
Jabeur, 27, started the match in style, using dropshots and passing shots to great effect as Rybakina’s power game failed to fire.
The Tunisian broke in the third game of the match when the Kazakh went long with a backhand.
She followed that with a hold to love that included a delicious backhand pass angled past her opponent at the net.
Rybakina was under intense pressure on her own serve again as her game threatened to unravel but she dug deep to hold for 3-2.
But that was only a temporary stay of execution for the Kazakh, who produced an error-strewn service game to gift the set to Jabeur.
As the Tunisian celebrated with a fist-pump, Rybakina returned to her chair contemplating a costly 17 unforced errors.
But momentum shifted immediately at the start of the second set as Rybakina broke Jabeur before holding for a 2-0 lead.
She had now found her rhythm and Jabeur had to battle hard to stay in touch as the Kazakh repeatedly chased down dropshots and found the touch she needed to hit finely angled winners.
Rybakina, who stands six feet (1.84 metres) tall, then fended off three break points before breaking again to take a 4-1 lead when Jabeur went long with a forehand.
She levelled the match with an ace as Jabeur reflected on four missed break-point opportunities in the set.
‘Stole my title!’
The 23rd-ranked Kazakh was first to strike in the decider, breaking straight away to heap the pressure on Jabeur, who failed to rediscover her sharpness from earlier in the match.
The Tunisian squandered three break points in the sixth game as her frustration mounted and that proved to be her last chance.
Rybakina showed a few nerves in serving out for the set but won with her first championship point when Jabeur went long with a backhand.
She ended the day with four aces, taking her total at this year’s Wimbledon to a tournament-leading 53, and 29 winners to 33 unforced errors.
Jabeur, the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam final, was attempting to become the first African woman to win a major.
“Elena stoke my title but it’s OK,” joked the Tunisian, who was left to rue nine missed break points over the course of the match.
“First of all I want to congratulate Elena and her team — great job and she deserved this and hopefully next time it will be mine,” said the third seed.
“I love this tournament so much and I feel really sad, but I’m trying to inspire many generations from my country. I hope they are listening.”
On Sunday, Novak Djokovic goes for a seventh men’s title when he faces unpredictable Nick Kyrgios of Australia.
That would put him level with Pete Sampras and just one behind Roger Federer’s record of eight.