On the morning of her own tournament final match, Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova read about Serena Williams’ domination over Maria Sharapova in the gold medal match of the Olympic Games.
“It’s not even possible how [Serena Williams] was playing,” Rybarikova said. “I was thinking, ‘It’s not possible to win a final 6-0, 6-1.’”
Rybarikova thought about that astonishing outcome as she took the stadium court at William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center on Saturday, the hard-hitting Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia the only thing standing between her and the Citi Open title.
Just more than an hour later, Rybarikova turned what she thought was an impossible feat into her own reality. Losing only one more game than Williams did in her final match, unseeded Rybarikova trounced the top-seeded Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 6-1 to win the Citi Open women’s singles tournament, the third title of her professional career.
Throughout the final match, Pavlyuchenkova’s hard serves challenged her opponent. But Rybarikova’s returns were often near perfectly placed. With Rybarikova’s returns falling deep in the corners, Pavlyuchenkova often found herself unable to make contact. When she did, Pavlyuchenkova’s own errors kept her from capitalizing.
Pavlyuchenkova lost point after point by hitting the ball into the net, even doing it four consecutive times in the fifth game of the second set. Things seemed to be going Rybarikova’s way during the entire match. But the 23-year-old didn’t let the initial success cloud her concentration.
“When I won the first set, I was all the time thinking, ‘Just keep going. Just keep going,’” Rybarikova said. “Because you can then lose … it’s up and down always. I was all the time thinking, just play my game, step by step, just every ball. And everything was working.”
Rybarikova ended the match with a pair of service aces. And even when Pavlyuchenkova was able to get a racket on her opponent’s serves, she was unable to keep her returns in bounds. Rybarikova won 95 percent of her first serve points (20 of 21).
Rybarikova, who is currently ranked 102nd in the world, has upset her opponent in three out of four singles matches this week. She beat No. 2-seeded Chanelle Scheepers on Monday in the first round of the tournament, 6-2, 6-1. After victories against Eleni Daniilidou on Wednesday and Jana Cepelova on Thursday, she topped No. 3-seeded Sloane Stephens, a 19-year-old American, 6-3, 6-3 in Friday’s semifinal match.
She had an uphill battle before her. But by refusing to think too much about the rankings, Rybarikova kept her feet on the ground and the matches going in her favor.
“I was just thinking all the time, just to play my game and to be relaxed,” Rybarikova said. “If I’m not relaxed, it’s very tough to play my game.”
Continuing what had appeared to be a source of frustration for her all night long, Pavlyuchenkova returned the ball into the net on match point. After Rybarikova was declared the victor, she shook Pavlyuchenkova’s hand and hugged her coach, who had been watching from the sideline.
After the match, the reserved Rybarikova clutched a tiny stuffed duck as she answered questions about her surprising feat. It’s a ritual for Rybarikova to have a good luck charm tucked away in her bag.
In the coming months, she’ll use the momentum from her Citi Open tournament victory to help her prepare for the U.S. Open qualifiers. She has to win three matches to make the draw and compete with the likes of Williams, the player from whom she drew her most recent inspiration. But if she’s got the duck in tow, the rest of the field should be on theirs.
“I think now it’s very lucky,” she said, giggling. “The duck is very happy and I am also very happy.”