Table of Contents
Let me start by saying that I have been covering sports for 16 years, working in various roles from content production to media relations – and everything in between. I cover approximately 50 leagues across the globe, while also reviewing a little over 100 movies each year.
I’ve interviewed many sports icons like Steph Curry at Davidson, Dick Vitale at an ACC Tournament and Sam Mitchell at a Georgia Southern basketball camp. The list goes on.
Why is this important? It’s not.
I just want to give some context to my experience working within sports and entertainment for over the better part of a decade. I’ve covered a lot.
Throughout my years of dealing with and covering coaches, athletic directors, scouts, broadcasters, athletes, etc… I’ve never really looked up to anybody as a role model or a hero.
As kids, it’s natural to attach oneself to a specific athlete or role model.
Looking up to someone was just never the case for me, which might be part of the reason I feel so suited to my current profession.
With that said, I respect a ton of professional athletes. Maya Moore, Pat Tillman, J.J. Watt, Jrue Holiday… the list of respect I have is very long.
Not once, though, has an athlete or any figure in sports captured my attention and obsession as being my ‘hero’ or my ‘role model’.
I always felt comfortable in my own skin and never needed a reflective figure to idolize.
My perception of that changed for me on Monday, March 27, 2023 while covering the Miami Open for work.
A quiet yet dominant Russian-born, current-Kazakh tennis player graced my screen – Elena Rybakina.
Had I heard of her before? Yes. She won Wimbledon in 2022 so of course I knew the name.
But when you cover the amount of leagues I do on a daily basis, it’s tough to fully know each and every athlete, coach, scout, figure, etc…
So admittingly, I knew nothing about her other than she won Wimbledon and represented Kazakhstan.
During her eventual Miami Open win over Elise Mertens, it became immediately evident that she was everything I personally love to see in professional athletes.
Textbook form? Check. Calm and cool demeanor? Check. Stoic emotions regardless of an outcome? Check. A lethal weapon in her arsenal (her serve)? Check. Respect for the game and the opponent? She literally checked every box there was for being a flawless professional athlete on the court.
After her win, she sat down at the Tennis Channel desk in which she could’ve talked about countless recent accomplishments on the court.
They could’ve discussed her Wimbledon win, her 2023 Aussie Open finalist result, her 2023 Indian Wells title or her chance to complete the ‘Sunshine Double’ (winning both Indian Wells and Miami in the same season).
She didn’t discuss any of it.
Rather, she discussed her donation to local junior Kazakh tennis players to give them something she says she didn’t always have – support.
Elena donated 14 grants worth because she wanted to pave a pathway for future tennis players in Kazakhstan. An empathetic act that was just as pleasant to learn about as it was to watch her play tennis.
I loved the gesture but athletes donate money all the time. Why was this different? I didn’t know it at the time, but this was very different (which I’ll get to).
After the interview, there was an involuntary internal reaction that had my attention. I wasn’t sure why, but suddenly there was a figure in sports I found myself pulling for.
Maybe it was the donation, maybe it was her on-court demeanor and skill, maybe it was both, maybe it was something completely different. Regardless, I had become a fan – something I never naturally obtained in my 16 years of working in professional sports media.
Sure, I have my small handful of favorite teams. But when you work in sports for as long as I have, the hardcore fandom sizzles out and you find yourself rooting for everyone to succeed rather than specific teams or players. At least I do, I can’t speak for everyone.
I used to live in Fort Lauderdale so after a crazy rain-riddled Miami Open semifinal win over Jessica Pegula, I decided to buy a ticket and go watch Rybakina play at the Hard Rock Stadium. She didn’t disappoint as I got to witness one of the best tiebreakers in tennis history.
She didn’t win, but she had accomplished so much in such a short amount of time I felt more proud of her than I was sad or upset. But that was it, I thought.
My entire takeaway was, ‘Wow. I just accidentally stumbled upon one of the best athletes I’ve had the pleasure of learning about… well that was fun. On to the next day and on with life.’
As Lee Corso would say, ‘not so fast my friend.’
The next day came but I was still thinking about how impressed I was with Rybakina’s demeanor, skill, court courtesy, community relations, etc… She was just so perfect on and off the court, even in defeat.
If you follow me at all, you know my Twitter is very active. I give the illusion I’m constantly on there, tweeting stats and trends for almost every league in the world.
Most tweets are set up in advance though. I’m never on Twitter tweeting at an exact moment or looking through toxic-riddled opinions, and now, fake and unverified accounts. I just don’t have the time.
However, while setting up tweets one day I decided to see if there was any news regarding Rybakina. This is when I really began to appreciate the person she is – an underrated role model.
While on Twitter, I came across a brilliant article written by Dove Sallow at The Tennis Letter, which I have linked in here. Give it a read if you have time, you won’t be disappointed.
Sallow’s article enlightened me on the background of Rybakina, and the amount of (pardon my French) bullshit she has gone through in her career.
Remember I mentioned she was a Russian-born, current-Kazakh player? Well in 2018, Elena switched her nationality from Russia to Kazakhstan. This is not at all uncommon in sports.
Serge Ibaka was born in Congo and played basketball for Spain. Steven Beitashour was born in California but played for the Iranian soccer team.
Elena’s not even the only Russian-born women’s tennis player to switch nationalities, as Yulia Putintseva was also born in Moscow but plays for Kazakhstan.
For some reason though, the tennis media hounded Elena over the switch as if it’s never been done. Quite frankly, it’s something she has no reason to explain to anyone other than it being her own decision.
Although she owes no explanation, it’s fair to ask – why switch?
Rybakina switched her nationality (I’m sure for many reasons) mainly because Kazakhstan was willing to financially support her career whereas Russia wouldn’t, claiming more promising prospects than Elena at the time.
So Rybakina switched her nationality, and why wouldn’t she? Athletes switch agents, teams (domestic or abroad), brands, etc… all for the betterment of their careers.
I still think about the amount of courage it must’ve taken for her to publicly switch her flag.
She probably knew that she would receive criticism from Russian tennis fans, the media and everything in between. She bravely did it anyway and it was clearly the right decision.
This is when I realized just how fearless she is.
She’s smart enough to know she doesn’t owe anybody anything with her life or career, and brave enough to make the right decision in difficult moments.
The adversity she faced didn’t stop there.
Wimbledon gives its champions on both the men’s and women’s side 2,000 points to their world rankings.
However, Russian and Belarusian players were banned from 2022 Wimbledon due to the current Russia-Ukraine War.
Because of this, the tennis organizations ATP and WTA decided no points would be awarded at Wimbledon – essentially making it an exhibition.
Talk about irony. Rybakina went on to win 2022 Wimbledon only to receive zero points because of a war involving the country she dropped.
Regardless, Rybakina is currently owed 2,000 points which would actually see her as tennis’ No. 3 ranked woman in the world. This is very important.
At the end of the tennis season, the Top 8 ranked women compete in the WTA Finals.
For those unaware, the WTA Finals not only awards more points to player’s world rankings – but the prize for winning is $5 million.
Because of the Wimbledon points she was robbed of, Rybakina didn’t qualify for the WTA Finals. Her opportunity and right for a higher ranking and higher payday was taken away unfairly.
Despite this, Elena never once sneered or complained to the media. She never once showed frustrations about any of it while playing on the court.
All she did was continue to play tennis her way, which as mentioned earlier for multiple reasons, is a complete joy to watch.
She let her tennis do the talking and the results paid off. She’s still owed 2,000 points, and would only be two rankings spots away from her goal of becoming No. 1 in the world.
Elena has gone through various points of her career overcoming adversity and quietly handling them. She doesn’t ask for sympathy or a shoulder to cry on. She plays tennis.
She has stood up for her right to play for anyone she chooses, she has been robbed of points and money from a sport she’s given her life to – only to keep fighting back without a word, and she has given back to a community that embraced her when her native country didn’t.
What’s not to love about Elena Rybakina?
She is smart, brave, confident, cool-headed, a heck of a tennis player and as beautiful inside as she is out. She is the only athlete or team I now find myself rooting for organically and it pains me to say, but she has turned me back into a hardcore sports fan.
I root for everyone’s success, don’t get me wrong. I like to see everyone do well in sports. But this is the first time in my life that I can honestly say I have a hero and role model I look up to.
I don’t vouch for role models in sports ever, although there are plenty of good apples to pick from.
However, I strongly feel that Elena Rybakina is one of the best role models people can look up to in sports. She doesn’t get enough recognition for what she’s gone through and accomplished both on and off the court.
She’s my idol and the only one I’ve ever considered.
Her popularity will continue to climb however, and then hopefully more people will see her for what she actually is and the way I view her as – which is not an underrated role model. But instead, simply inspirational.
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