Ice Ice Baby

Ice Ice Baby

Don’t take Elena Rybakina for granted.

Don't take Elena Rybakina for granted.

By Giri NathanMarch 29, 2024

Elena Rybakina is quick to the point in Miami. // Associated Press

Elena Rybakina is quick to the point in Miami. // Associated Press

Elena Rybakina is both here and not. Her calendar’s been littered with withdrawals over the past year. The world No. 4 often seems to be battling something—most recently a gastrointestinal illness that saw her walkover in Dubai and skip Indian Wells altogether, forfeiting the 1000 points she earned by taking the title in the desert last year. But whenever she’s actually there, on court, she’s certain to be whupping someone something terrible. You learn not to take her for granted. She’s like that elusive friend you’re lucky to pin down a few times a year, and it feels precious every time you do, if only your friend could also serve 125 mph and betray no recognizable emotions while doing so. Your friend could never win Wimbledon and offer the world only the tiniest fist pump and exhalation. That’s a whole other plateau of cool. 

Sometimes Rybakina’s cool manifests in effortless deletion of her opponents. That was her mode this time last year, when she was barreling through the hard-court season, just falling short of a Slam in Melbourne and barely missing out on the Sunshine Double. Right now Rybakina’s form isn’t quite that pristine, but if anything, it’s made her wins that much more compelling. You have to get yourself into some adverse situations for the ice to really shine. On that theme, Rybakina has lost 69 games at this tournament, the most of any Miami finalist since the event began in 1985. She’s cast herself into some complicated three-setters, and along the way she’s thrown her racquet around, gotten a wildly uncharacteristic code violation for ball abuse, and bickered nonstop with her chatty coach Stefano Vukov, only to fatefully blast her way through the pressure regardless.

Truly, no easy matches for Lena in Miami. To open her tournament, a pair of three-setters against qualifiers: the powerful Clara Tauson and the mix-it-up ingenuity of Taylor Townsend. Rybakina briefly caught her breath with a straight-setter against Madison Keys. (Imagine being good enough to “catch your breath” against a booming Madison Keys on a hard court.) Then in round 4 Rybakina was assigned the freshly resurgent Maria Sakkari, who is all zenned out and challenging the WTA royalty once again. Rybakina got match points in the second set but couldn’t finish the job, and as she botched it, she was fighting so vocally with her coach that Sakkari couldn’t help but grimace and smile from across the court. It was over an hour later, on her fifth match point, that Rybakina managed to serve out the match with new balls. So that was two hours and 48 minutes of toil.

In any fight, it helps to have the biggest weapon, and Rybakina will nearly always claim that honor with the nastiest serve on the WTA. She struck 10 aces against Sakkari. She added 11 more in a fascinating and bizarre semifinal against Vika Azarenka, yet another three-setter. After taking the first set, Rybakina physically and mentally vanished in the second—her first bagel set received since August 2022—and then she looked to be in a temporary panic while trying to serve it out at 5–4 in the third, losing conviction in her net game. Azarenka broke, then held, and suddenly Rybakina was serving to stay in the tournament. No sweat: Simply cue up a cold sequence of servebot-like unconsciousness, winning 10 of 11 points to blow open the deciding tiebreak.

“I switched off the mind a bit for the tiebreak and I just went for it,” she said after a win that put her at 22–3 on the season. South Florida has one last challenge for this chilly killer: Switch off the mind during a title fight against a rolling Danielle Collins, whose backhand is fearsome enough to do cross-court battle with Rybakina’s impeccable two-hander, and who will be yelling more than enough to offset her quiet. Something tells me this one’s going three.


The Hopper

—Andy Murray is injured, and it doesn’t look good.

—Agassi, Roddick, Gauff… Zendaya. Brad Gilbert consulted on the film “Challengers”, via Joel Drucker.

—Africa’s tennis talents tread long road to success, via The Guardian.

—Novak Djokovic and Goran Ivanisevic have broken up.

—Cool meditation on journalism ethics here, from Defector.


—Vicente Muñoz’s postcard from Phoenix