Wimbledon 2017: Magdalena Rybarikova's fairytale journey from obscure ITF tournaments to Grand Slam semi-final

Twenty years after making her first Wimbledon appearance, Venus Williams is into the semi-finals for the 10th time. Home favourite Johanna Konta became Britain's first women's Wimbledon semi-finalist since 1978, and 2015 finalist Garbine Muguruza has rediscovered some of her best form to reach the last-four once again.

Women’s tennis has produced some of the most compelling stories in sports but the one that has been the most awe-inspiring is surprise semi-finalist Magdalena Rybarikova’s fairytale comeback.

Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova after winning the quarter-final match against CoCo Vandeweghe. Reuters

Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova after winning the quarter-final match against CoCo Vandeweghe. Reuters

A year ago, right after Wimbledon 2016, Rybarikova had to undergo surgery on her left wrist for an injury that had been causing her pain for two years. Right after that, her right knee went under the knife for another surgical process. She was forced to spend seven months on the sidelines to recuperate and only returned to tennis in February this year.

She started playing on the ITF Circuit, and in March was ranked as far back as 453 in the world. She slowly started making deep runs in the lower-tier tournaments, and in May picked up two titles — one at an 80K in Gifu and the other at a 60K in Fukuoka — two obscure cities in Japan. She impressed at Roland Garros with a first-round win over World No 19 CoCo Vandeweghe, which was a sign of better things to come.

The Slovakian has always performed well on the faster surfaces in her career, and she flourished in the grass-court season. She won two more ITF titles on grass — the 100K events in Surbiton and Ilkley — and reached the semi-finals at Nottingham. This helped her ranking rise into double-digit figures and she came into Wimbledon on a 13-1 win-loss record.

At Wimbledon, she stunned in-form player Karolina Pliskova, who was seeded third and was one of the favourites for the title, in the second round. She continued her good run against Lesia Tsurenko and Petra Martic to make her first ever Grand Slam quarter-final.

In the last-eight, she was up against a familiar foe, American Vandeweghe, who she had defeated for the loss of just five games just over a month ago. However, while her opponent’s power game wasn’t much of a threat on clay, Vandeweghe was the heavy favourite on grass.

In a match that started on Court No 1 and eventually finished on Centre Court, Rybarikova put up a masterclass in how to play on grass. She disrupted Vandeweghe’s rhythm with her wide variety of shots and used the backhand slice to move her opponent all over the court.

The unseeded player served well, and read her opponent’s serve even better. Rybarikova broke in the opening game of the first set and never looked back. Vandeweghe was not even able to get to deuce on the Slovakian’s serve in the first set and was broken again towards the end — a clear indication of how well Rybarikova dominated in the quarter-final match.

Even when the match resumed after a three-hour rain delay under the roof on Centre Court at 6-3, 2-2, it was Rybarikova who adapted quickly to the new conditions.

The Slovakian’s funky yet effective style of tennis led to eight winner and eight unforced errors over the course of the match. However, it was the errors that she forced off the No 24 seed’s racquet that did the damage. Vandeweghe ended the two sets with 17 winners, but 30 errors.

“I can't believe that I'm in the semi-finals. I'm so happy, this is incredible,” a stunned Rybarikova said immediately after the match that she won 6-3, 6-3. After winning match point, she just stood with her hands to her face, in complete disbelief as the enormity of her achievement sunk in.

"I didn't expect I going to play that well, that I going to reach semi-final — but I did. You just have to believe. If you can see the draws, before the tournament, before Mirjana Lucic, she was in the semi-final of Australian Open, that was a huge surprise. It was also before like that — always some player who surprise. Now I was lucky to be me," Rybarikova said in the post-match conference.

When you watch Rybarikova play, you are reminded of a long-lost era of players who played this game with a different grace and style. Rybarikova wouldn’t look out of place at all if you put a wooden racquet in her hands — her soft hands and backhand slice are reminiscent of the players of the 80s.

Slovakia's Magdalena Rybarikova volleys a return during a match at Wimbledon. AP

Slovakia's Magdalena Rybarikova volleys a return during a match at Wimbledon. AP

Rybarikova’s two-handed, driving backhand is one of her most reliant weapons, but her forehand with its curling sidespin can fox opponents. She has a fluid serving motion, and isn’t afraid to venture to the net behind it. Couple this with her nimble movement, and she has a unique game that could neutralise any power-hitter.

What makes Rybarikova’s 2017 Wimbledon campaign even more astonishing is the fact that despite her love for grass and quick surfaces, she had never made it past the third round. In fact, in nine previous appearances at SW19, she had been knocked out in the first round eight times.

Thanks to her performance at Wimbledon, she will be back in the top 50 come Monday — her highest career ranking was 31 back in 2013. In just eight tournaments since her return from injury, Rybarikova has accomplished a phenomenal rise built on ITF events and her best Grand Slam performance.

On Thursday, she will once again be playing in a completely unknown situation — her first Grand Slam semi-final.

Her opponent in the last-four is Garbine Muguruza, another player with an explosive game. The Spaniard made the finals at Wimbledon in 2015, and has been ruthless over the last five rounds. But for Rybarikova, who is thankful to be playing without pain for the first time in years, this match is another opportunity to enjoy herself.

2017 has been a year of comebacks and coming back to tennis. We already witnessed a surprise champion at the French Open in Jelena Ostapenko. We might be in for a few more shocks at Wimbledon.

Updated Date: Jul 13, 2017 10:26 AM

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