Rybakina relishes prospect of facing Serena

 - Dan Imhoff

World No.22 enters uncharted territory and a 23-time major winner now stands in her path

Elena Rybakina, Roland-Garros 2021 third round©️ Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Elena Rybakina shifts in her seat in nervous anticipation and can’t help but grin at the mere mention of Serena Williams’ name.

It is to be expected when an emerging player entertains the thought of how their own potent ball-striking stacks up against the aggressive might of a 23-time major champion.

At 21, Rybakina has already endured a peak and a trough in her short career, and hopes her push to a maiden fourth round at a Grand Slam is the leg up out of that trough in Paris.

The 6ft Kazakhstani thumped 26 winners – including 12 aces – on her way past former Wimbledon semi-finalist Elena Vesnina on Friday in little more than an hour.

On a damp and heavy day on Court Suzanne-Lenglen, this statistic had a rather Serena-esque feel to it.

“Of course I would like to play with Serena,” Rybakina beamed. “But for me, doesn't really matter because I will go on court, I will try to do my best, to fight. Of course the goal is to win, so I'm going to do everything possible… It's gonna be not easy, for sure.”

Elena Rybakina, Roland-Garros 2021 third round©️ Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Rybakina had only reached the third round at this level once before – at the Australian Open last year, when top seed Ashleigh Barty had her measure.

That was the only event in her first five of 2020 that she did not reach the final. A top 20 debut followed in February on the back of her first Premier-level runner-up showing at St Petersburg where she fell to Kiki Bertens.

Then the pandemic set in and derailed her momentum much longer than she expected.

“It was important for me because I didn't start the year so good. After Australia I had many problems like health problems and was not going my way,” she said.

“Now I'm just feeling better, and I'm trying to find my rhythm. I feel that with every match it's just getting better.”

That same form and consistency have eluded her this year and the world No.22 conceded it was a combination of health concerns and adapting to the Covid-normal Tour life that had been a thorn in her side.

“I mean, it was a tough time for everybody. Of course after lockdowns last year, it was difficult to start again good,” she said. “Actually, I felt much better in the beginning of this year, also first tournament in Abu Dhabi. I was feeling good, I was playing well.

“I did also great preparation, and I was unlucky being in this hard lockdown in Australia… After, I had some issues with the health. Was not easy at all, but finally now I'm feeling much better.

“Before this tournament I didn't play, like, three weeks. I rested a bit and I practised, so I think it was a good decision.”

Elena Rybakina, Roland-Garros 2021 third round©️ Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

That move could not have come at a better time. Not since her lone quarter-final of the season in Abu Dhabi in January had Rybakina picked up back-to-back wins until her second-round defeat of Nao Hibino in Paris.

The Japanese world No.82 was the highest-ranked player she has faced this campaign. Her first-round victim, French wildcard Elsa Jacquemot arrived as the world No.492, while Vesnina’s three-year return from maternity leave had her at No.1096.

Rybakina is under no illusion about the task at hand. Williams presents a colossal step up.

“The legend of the sport. Of course I want to be with her on the court, to feel this power and everything,” she smiles. “I was watching her matches when I was growing up, and it will be nice to play with Serena. Why not?”