Reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina has reiterated her happiness with head coach Stefano Vukov’s direct coaching methods after fury over the 35-year-old’s aggressive instructions towards his charge, en route to a maiden runner-up finish at last month’s Australian Open tournament. She said social media comments – from many people who don’t know the inner workings of her nor the support team – ultimately blew things out of proportion.
Rybakina again defends coach Vukov after Croatian is criticised
- “Unfortunately, the internet is a big thing and someone can make a comment without thinking… people just pick it up and make a mess. A few made some comments; they don’t know me at all, my team… I was really surprised because if there are any problems, you can always come and talk with me directly,” Rybakina on the furore in a Eurosport interview
- “Sometimes I really need energy, I’m quite calm and can think so much about myself, so need something quick to understand what’s happening. He helps me a lot, we have open dialogues and worked already for four years,” on her demeanour and their dynamic
- 23-year-old recently returned to action after Australian Open final defeat and now takes on Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia from 2pm BST today, in the quarter-finals of the Abu Dhabi Open after a 6-4, 6-2 win over former world no. 1 Karolina Pliskova yesterday
Elena Rybakina’s career-best run to last month’s Australian Open final was, by all accounts, a welcome sight. A three-set win over last year’s runner-up Danielle Collins proved a trial by fire she successfully navigated beyond, and from there it was a series of morale-boosting wins.
World number one Iga Swiatek, 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and the tournament’s two-time titlist Victoria Azarenka all fell in straight-sets against the ever-improving Kazakh en route to the showpiece event as her brilliant form continued.
There, she took the opening set but ultimately came unstuck against perhaps the only player on tour who can outhit her from the baseline: Aryna Sabalenka.
Instead of championing her progress as the 23-year-old’s development continues, many were more concerned about the actions and demonstrative behaviour of her coach in the players box.
As on-court coaching was allowed, Stefano Vukov’s sharp and often blunt communication quickly caught the attention of fans watching worldwide.
Perceived to be too aggressive with his instructions while displaying negative gestures when she made poor decisions or missed shots in tight moments, it’s fair to say they didn’t go down well – not least at a time where player safeguarding on the women’s tour is under the magnifying glass.
Pam Shriver, a Hall of Fame doubles great-turned-commentator, took to Twitter during the final, publicly calling on Rybakina to find a coach ‘who speaks and treats her with respect at all times’ – an observation shared by many on the platform.
Belinda Bencic’s Russian coach Dmitry Tursunov knows the Croatian personally and was one of few who defended him, before Rybakina defended him on Instagram to slam the ‘fake news’.
A few days later, 2013 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli expressed her unhappiness with Vukov’s behaviour – giving a personal anecdote from her coaching stint to support her opinion:
“The way [Vukov] is talking to Rybakina on the court is just not something I can accept. I just can’t take that anymore. I sincerely hope for her sake, to be able to continue the game, she will be able to find a coach that talks with respect to her no matter what the result is because she is really trying her hardest on court.
To see someone going hard at her in such a negative way – I’ve seen that in the past myself, events when I was with Ostapenko playing those as well, in some practice courts when there is no cameras – he is behaving in some ways I can’t accept.”
As shown in the above headlines though and throughout the last fortnight or so, Rybakina – an introvert by nature – has repeatedly stressed there is nothing to be worried about.
“If you see me just like on the court, you don’t know what’s happening around and it’s quite a lot. Even if I look calm, of course, I always talk with my coach, it’s just not the moment, of course during a match I will just listen [and not respond].
Sometimes I have bad days, people might not see it – and when we work on the court, I respect him a lot, trying to listen and get all the information I can.”
While I understand the reaction, it’s important to be careful with what you say: especially when you don’t have a behind-the-scenes look into their player-coach dynamic and know what their boundaries are. Hopefully now, her most recent interview comments signals the end of that.
Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia needed three hours and 13 minutes to get the job done, eventually outlasting Yulia Putintseva… having squandered what was a 5-3 lead and three match points in set two – as well as a 3-0 tiebreak lead – before being embroiled in a gruelling deciding set.
She needed three sets but the decider was much different – a bagel set – against Czech’s Marie Bouzkova on Tuesday, so how will she fare later on in a first H2H meeting with Rybakina?
The quarter-finals at this week’s two WTA events are as follows…
Abu Dhabi Open (WTA500)
Daria Kasatkina  vs. Qinwen Zheng
Veronika Kudermetova  vs. Luidmila Samsonova 
Beatriz Haddad Maia  vs. Elena Rybakina 
Shelby Rogers vs. Belinda Bencic , live now!
Maria Sakkari  vs. Donna Vekic 
Clara Tauson vs. Petra Martic 
Anastasia Potapova  vs. Anna-Lena Friedsam
Dalma Galfi vs. Marketa Vondrousova
Picture source: Getty Images, quote sources hyperlinked