Rybakina v Noskova: Things we learned

It was relatively smooth sailing for the No.4 seed

Elena Rybakina, second round, Roland-Garros 2023 © Philippe Montigny/FFT
 - Chris Oddo

These days you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who isn’t high on the talents of Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina.

The 2022 Wimbledon champion has expanded her empire authoritatively in 2023, racking up WTA 1000 titles at Indian Wells and Rome, and reaching finals at the Australian Open and Miami. 

Impressively, Rybakina has continued to perform since she hoisted the Venus Rosewater Dish at the All England Club last July - now she's looking to leave an indelible mark on the terre battue of Paris.

Here’s what we learned from Rybakina’s 6-3, 6-3 takedown of 18-year-old Czech Linda Noskova on Thursday.

A contender for La Coupe

For those who wondered if the 23-year-old’s linear power game could translate to the sport's slowest surface, we got our proof in Rome.

Rybakina was neck-and-neck with two-time defending champion Iga Swiatek in the quarter-finals at the Foro Italico when the Pole pulled the plug due to a right thigh injury. 

It wasn’t the way she wanted to win, but that match demonstrated Rybakina’s ability to match talents with Swiatek on the world No.1's best surface. 

Now 11-2 for the season on clay, and a career 37-17, Rybakina improves to 9-4 overall at Roland-Garros with today's win. The ease with which she has passed through her first two matches – while cracking 14 aces and 63 winners – is a testament to her level on the surface this season, and her right to be considered a potential contender for the title.

Rybakina will bid to stretch her clay-court winning streak to nine matches on Saturday when she faces Sara Sorribes Tormo in the third round.

Elena Rybakina, 2e tour, Roland-Garros 2023©Philippe Montigny / FFT

More than calm, she’s unflappable 

Some mistake Rybakina’s eerie calm for detachment – a sign of timidity rather than the mark of a champion – but that wouldn’t be an accurate assessment. More than simply calm, the world No.4 possesses a rare – and applicable – poise that guides her through tough moments on tennis' biggest stages. 

On Court-Suzanne Lenglen on Thursday, Rybakina never seemed worried against a rising 18-year-old that would have caused many of her peers to panic.

She was comfortable in her game plan and executed her tactics methodically, relying on her power advantage on serve and from the baseline to tilt the court in her favour. 

Case in point: the final game of the opening set, in which Rybakina missed out on four set points but calmly hung around and converted the fifth to squash the Czech’s hopes for a late rally. That's mental strength...

Even that paled in comparison to the final three games of a tense second set, when Rybakina saved three break points to hold for 4-3, then seized on momentum to break critically in the next game. She had to beat back a final break point in the final game, before converting her fourth match point to seal the victory in one hour and 26 minutes. 

Though Rybakina, by her own admission, didn't play her best match and often rushed her shots, she still was able to overcome a dangerous opponent without surrendering a single break of serve - it bodes well.

She can, and will, be better

Rybakina's first Grand Slam quarter-final came in Paris two years ago, when she defeated Serena Williams for her first top-10 win on clay. Two years later, she looks – and feels – even more comfortable on the surface.

"My first WTA win was on clay, so from that point I thought I actually can play on clay," she told reporters in her post-match press conference. "I think it depends where, the conditions, how is the weather, balls. Even here it's quite different from Rome, the tournament I just won."

The clear-headed Kazakh has a good read on what works and doesn't work for her on the surface, and each match she puts under her belt gets her that much closer to where she wants to be.

"I think it's just for me different and longer preparations physically just because you need to slide a lot," she says. "Physically the rallies are longer, more patient. But I think that I can play good. Just with experience over the years and matches I can get just better and better."

Elena Rybakina, 2e tour, Roland-Garros 2023©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

Movement a plus

Rybakina may not be a classic mover on the terre battue. She doesn’t have the sliding chops of a Justine Henin or an Iga Swiatek, but she knows her limitations and covers the court exceptionally well. 

Several times she made easy pickups of drop shot attempts by Noskova, and when points stretched out beyond nine points, her movement held up, as she won six of nine of the longest points (rallies of nine or more strokes) of the match.