You've reached the semis of one of the biggest junior tournaments in the world (Trofeo Bonfiglio), the quarters of another (the Orange Bowl), and the round of 16 of the biggest of them all (The Championships aka Wimbledon), but your name is rarely mentioned when they talk about The Bright Future Of American Tennis.
You have 11 main draw wins this year alone at the pro level, including a straight-set win over a Top 300 player - a European clay-courter on European clay. You've reached 2 pro semifinals and are one of the hottest college prospects in the country. In any other country, you'd be considered one of the best things going. But given whom you're surrounded by at this historical moment, it's almost like you're ... almost lost in the shuffle?
|Alex Rybakov. (c) Jonathan Kelley|
Ladies, gentlemen, everyone: let us now take a moment to appreciate Alex Rybakov.
A New Yorker of Russian heritage who now resides in Florida, Rybakov is a rare breed: a one-handed lefty who comes over the top of his backhands. Who do you model your game after, when that's your game? You take a little from a bunch of guys. Feliciano Lopez's serve. Tommy Robredo's movement and forehand. Philip Kohlschreiber's backhand. (Well, ideally Wawrinka's, but that may take time.) (Or, if you still have a black & white TV, fellow New Yorker John McEnroe.)
It also helps to have a guy with a one-hander as a coach, even if he's a righty. Diego Moyano, who works with a number of juniors via his position at USTA, found a special kinship with Rybakov when they started working together a few years ago.
"In Argentina, back in the day, we had a lot of one-handed players so it was pretty easy talking with him about that because we share the same feelings on that topic," said Moyano. "He's very easy to coach, a very good listener."
Here in Kalamazoo, at the USTA Boys 18s National Championships, Rybakov has had a great run to the quarterfinals as the #7 seed in what is the most accomplished field in tournament history. He started slow in the first round against Aron Pierce but won his first set in a tiebreak and won his next five sets dropping just four games total. Today in the round of 16, he took on another extremely talented, under-appreciated, third-round-of-Wimbledon-reaching 18-year-old, USC incoming freshman Logan Smith and, in possibly the best 18s singles match of the day, survived 6-4 7-6(5), saving two set points on his serve in the last game of the second set before the tiebreak.
"He was playing better than me at the end of the second set," said Rybakov. "I was losing a bit of focus." But he stayed calm and got helped a bit on a sitter forehand that Smith dumped into the net on match point #2. It's always good to get help, at any level.
So then Paul goes on to win that tournament you thought you could do pretty well at. And then you skip Wimbledon, which another of your peers, Reilly Opelka, wins. And another contemporary, Taylor Fritz, ascends to the #1 junior spot. And another is in the ATP Top 300. And another is in the ATP Top 150. And another reaches an ATP Challenger final. And another just a week ago wins his second Futures title in less than 12 months.
Your coach, for one, thinks college will be great for you. "Alex is a pretty serious guy, a good worker, he needs maybe a little more time to develop his game and body -- his mind is pretty mature for his age, but on the physicality and the tennis, I think college is going to be great." Specifically in terms of a his game, a guy who has tended to excel on clay will be playing more fast hardcourts, which, Moyano believes, will force him to be faster in his decision-making, and to shorten his strokes, which is the direction men's tennis seems to be headed. "He'll be playing a ton of guys who serve really well and are really aggressive. Plus the focus on doubles is going to help with his volleys - he has a good fundamentals of the volley, needs to keep working on that - and will help his serve, first ball, return. It's going to be good."
So what's it like being such a good player surrounded by so many really good players?
"I like to think of myself as one of them," said Rybakov. "I train with them - of course, they're all unbelievable players but you have to have confidence in yourself and if you don't believe in yourself to win -- if you don't step on the court thinking you're going to win every match, then you're not going to get very far."
"Everyone has to have their own team around them, helping them .... become the best player they can. I think I have a good team around me right now. Tennis is an individual sport. Obviously, With their success, you look all around and "wow, so good." abut at the end of the day, you have to look at yourself and see what's best for yourself and just focus on that. So as much as their results motivate me and help me do better, I'm trying to do my best on focusing on myself and don't what's best for me."
It's also notable that all these guys are from different walks of life, with many, like Rybakov, coming from immigrant families. "Having the diversity has been great," he says. "We try to push ourselves to do the best we can. As much as I respect them as players, they're all unbelievable people and I love spending time with every single one of them."
So there you are: Alex Rybakov. He's a great player, and he's in great company.