Don't let her stoic facade fool you. Elena Rybakina shows opponents exactly what she wants them to see: nothing at all. And it works.

Wimbledon Announcer 1: “True to form, there is no celebration whatsoever.”

Wimbledon Announcer 2: “She’s a cool customer. Very tepid response.”

Johnny Mac: “Didn’t even react when she won Wimbledon.”

And so it was that then 23-year-old Elena Rybakina waltzed onto the scene when she won Wimbledon in 2022 in only her second appearance.

Waltzed. Not burst or exploded or sauntered or sashayed. She waltzed onto the scene.

Her play dazzled. She made a gritty comeback against favored Ons Jabeur after losing the first set. It was no fluke. She outplayed Jabeur once she settled her nerves.

Rybakina’s game made a loud statement. So did her composure. Her fire, or lack thereof, had people puzzled.

Grandiose and boisterous, she is not.

Tennis is an intense—and intensely personal—sport that beckons emotional outbursts from our deepest and most primal recesses. You would be hard-pressed to name a player who hasn’t roared in both celebratory glee and unchecked anger.

Rybakina does neither. She’s as cool as a cucumber.

Here she is winning Wimbledon:

There was no collapsing on the court. No screams to the heavens. No twirlie-doos. No look-at-me chest-thumping. No crying.

There was a little fist pump, a deepish exhale, and a waltz up to the net to shake her vanquished opponent’s hand. This is not the level of excitement we’re used to seeing when someone wins the sport’s most cherished trophy.

And yet…it was refreshing.

“Act like you’ve been there,” we say. Okay, then why do we nag when someone does just that? Fickle folks, we humans with our opinions of how other people should act.

In a new episode of Red Bull’s “Mind Set Win” podcast hosted by Cédric Dumont, Elena Rybakina delves into her on-court demeanor and more.

She had to prove to herself that she was good

Some athletes are cocksure. They believe they’re the best regardless of prevailing evidence.

Often, it is this very arrogance that leads to their greatness…or downfall.

Other players don’t have that blind self-belief, so they have to earn their confidence the old-fashioned way: competing and winning.

Rybakina played juniors for much longer than most of her peers, up until age 17. She was a multisport athlete who decided to pursue tennis with the blessing of her family.

She recalls a specific match in the St. Petersburg Open in 2018 that gave her the belief that she could succeed on tour. Still unknown, she received a wild card into the qualifiers, advanced into the main draw and found herself in the second round against Caroline Garcia, a top 8 player at the time. Aged 18, ranked 450 in the world, Rybakina won 4-6, 7-6, 7-6.

“I think it was a big change when I played one WTA event from qualies. I made it to the third round and beat one of the top players. In these moments, in these matches, you kind of believe more in yourself.”

That match was the springboard that lifted her self-belief and sent her on a trajectory toward greatness.

“It was really wild that I can compete at this level. I kind of felt that, I have the shots, I have everything, and so now the question is about consistency. Tennis is a long game and you need to be consistent. From there it was clear for me that I can [compete].”

Knowing you can compete and win against the best in the world is a major psychological breakthrough. It changes everything. How you train, eat, and dress. How you walk onto the court, warm up, and carry yourself in victory and defeat. How you speak in interviews. How you speak to yourself in your own head.

The next step is figuring out how to maintain that level year-round against all opponents in all tournaments. Can you bring it every time, no matter the weight of the situation or the person across the net from you?

Traveling solo at a young age gave her discipline

Unlike most of her peers, Rybakina traveled to most of her junior tournaments alone.

“Usually if you go to a juniors event, if you are 15, 16, you are traveling with either a coach or parents or someone else, but I was traveling alone. You have your friends, but they are still with their coaches or parents.

“I think this actually helped me to be disciplined.”

Travel is a logistical Rubik’s Cube, and much can go wrong. It can be intimidating even for the most seasoned globetrotter. Flights, hotels, local transportation, unfamiliar neighborhoods, jetlag, meals, foreign currencies and languages—you know the drill.

Without great discipline, it’s easy to slip up anywhere along the way. It makes sense that doing that alone forced her to build strong personal discipline.

Discipline translates into positive results everywhere. It dictates what you do off the court (your activities, sleep schedule, diet, etc.) and your decision-making on the court (when to go for that big forehand, sticking with the gameplan, hitting safe second serves on break points).

Lack of companionship is probably a meaningful piece here, too.

Who do you celebrate with when you win? Who consoles you when you lose? Who do you vent your frustrations to? Gameplan with? Pal around with while waiting for your match to start? Who warms you up?

She had to figure all that out on her own.

Another offshoot? Bravery. Take disciplined bravery onto the court with you and you can be near invincible.

Controlling her emotions is a tactic

Now back to that stonefaced on-court demeanor. It’s clearly part of her personality, but there’s more to it than that. She keeps her emotions in check on purpose.

“I think that, compared to other athletes I’m trying to not show the emotions. And no matter the situation, be calm and try to not show if I’m upset or I’m angry.”

She’s well aware of the pros and cons of emotional neutrality and thinks it served her well early in her career when she was still under the radar.

“I think this is something that worked especially well in the beginning, and you’re coming calm on the court and then you’re playing really well. I think it was working really good in the beginning. No one knows about you so they need some time also to actually realize what is the weak spots or not.”

Rybakina also mentions that tennis is like chess, that you “need to know what your opponent is going to do.”

Tennis players are constantly reading their opponents, looking for clues. Ways in. Weak spots. Opportunities to exploit. Sure, we look for tactical weak spots. Short forehands, high backhands, etc. But mostly we try to read emotional fluctuations, and when someone is teetering, we go in for the kill.

An opponent doesn’t teeter for an entire match. No, they teeter for brief moments. Maybe once per set at the highest levels. Sometimes you cause them to teeter, sometimes you have nothing to do with it. Your job is to recognize that subtle change in their demeanor and strike. These are the moments when matches are won and lost.

It’s tough to hide how good your game is during a match, but you can definitely hide your emotions.

“I think now it also helps me and also makes it confusing sometimes for the opponent.”

Show no signs of teetering and your opponent can’t see any openings.

She won Wimbledon because of a bathroom break pep talk

How many times have we heard a player credit a bathroom break for turning a match around? It happens all the time, and it happened for Rybakina when she won Wimbledon.

Nervous and unsteady, she lost the opening set.

“The serve was not working, and the previous matches it was good, so of course I didn’t forget how to serve, and it was pure emotions.”

“I lost the first set. I went to take the toilet break just to breathe a little bit. I was telling myself ‘It’s just a match. I just need to do what I usually do and forget about what’s happening around.’ And I was trying to convince myself that no matter if I win or lose I already did a great job and just try to enjoy.”

It worked.

“I went and played much better second set. I was trying to focus on every point. After winning one point, one game, [one] set, it was much easier.”

That is called momentum. It can change on a dime. Jabeur had it, then she didn’t. Rybakina took it. She took it in her mind in front of a mirror in the restroom. And now she has a Wimbledon trophy.

Being a top player, but not treated like one

Her Wimbledon win came with a painful caveat.

The war in Ukraine had started shortly before the tournament, and Wimbledon disallowed Russian and Belarusian players from competing. In response, the ATP and WTA Tours decided not to award ranking points to any of that year’s participants. So while Rybakina should have leaped up the rankings from world No. 17 to world No. 2, she didn’t.

In tennis, higher rankings bestow better benefits.

Obviously, you get an easier draw the higher you’re seeded, including potential first-round byes and matchups against the lowest seeds possible along the way. You get an easier path because you earned it.

You also earn the right to be on show courts, which means more fans, more buzz, more prestige, better facilities, more energy, and more eyeballs. (Sponsors like eyeballs, folks. Don’t forget that tennis players are independent contractors, so a direct line can be drawn to their pocketbooks, too.)

But Rybakina was relegated to the outer courts despite being the recent and reigning Wimbledon champion.

“It was not easy to overcome this win because, of course after winning a title you’re like, ‘Wow I hope it was not just by mistake or by luck’ or whatever it is. In my case it was a bit different because I didn’t get the points, so on the rest of the tournaments and another big Grand Slam I didn’t feel that I’m a top player.”

The big Grand Slam was the 2022 US Open, where she was the No. 25 seed (!!!) and the organizers stuck her way out on Court 12 where she promptly lost in the first round. It’s hard not to feel slighted and let that impact your performance.

“It’s a lot of expectations from you and a lot of people looking at you and waiting [to see] what you’re going to do next at your next tournament. But at the same time, you’re not treated like a top player because you didn’t get the points. So I would say that this period was not an easy one, for sure.”

“It’s pity. I feel like actually I’m not the Wimbledon champion,” she said at the time.

Proving her talent to herself one more time

2022 ended uneventfully for Rybakina, and her team rebounded with terrific preparation to start 2023. The results were immediate.

“We had great preparation for this season, and then this season was super. Especially in the beginning, I was like ‘Yes, for sure I can do it again.’ And straight away in Australian Open I played another final, so that gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the year.”

She didn’t win that final, but just reaching it was enough to restore her self-belief.

“I think these wins…give you confidence. After I played final of Australian Open, these doubts about if Wimbledon was luck or maybe it was special conditions, that’s why I won, it straight away disappeared.”

Even champions have to remind themselves that they are champions. Once they do, the sky is the limit. Rybakina’s ranking is now firmly in the Top 5, and she won’t be on any outer courts again any time soon.

“I’m just hungry for more.”