Aryna Sabalenka defeats Elena Rybakina to win thrilling Australian Open women’s final
Belarus-born Aryna Sabalenka defeated Elena Rybakina in straight sets to win a thrilling Australian Open women’s final on Saturday, becoming the first player to compete under a neutral flag to win a grand slam.
Amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, tournament organizer Tennis Australia has asked Russian and Belarus players to compete as neutrals.
Overplayed in the first set, Sabalenka came from behind to defeat the reigning Wimbledon champion 4-6 6-3 6-4 in a remarkable turnaround in Melbourne.
Breaking Rybakina’s serve in game seven of a tense third set proved to be the crucial breakthrough for the fifth seed, whose venomous serve and intense groundstrokes ultimately paved the way for her success.
A nervous start from Sabalenka – she committed five double faults and won just four points on second serve in the first set – made it look like it would be a routine second Grand Slam for Rybakina as she won the first set in 34 minutes.
But Sabalenka found precision and power in the second and third sets, with Rybakina faltering at crucial stages. The Russian-born Kazakh, who is also a big hitter, picked up three points in the championship but sent a long forehand in fourth. Sabalenka fell to the floor reduced to tears as she won her first major.
She celebrated by climbing into the players’ box where her coach, Anton Dubrov, could be seen sobbing into a towel.
“I’m still shaking and I’m super nervous,” she told onlookers during her on-pitch speech before the presentation.
Receiving the trophy from Billie Jean King, Sabalenka thanked the American great for her pioneering work in women’s football, and then thanked her team, which she described as the “craziest on the circuit”.
“We went through a lot of lows last year,” she said. “We worked so hard, you deserve this trophy, it’s more about you than me. Thank you so much for everything you do for me. I love you.”
Minsk-born Sabalenka was entering her first Grand Slam final, having lost three major semi-finals. Serving first, she opened the game with a double fault as nerves clearly played a part in an occasion like this. She later admitted that she didn’t tactically “play my best” in the first set.
In the second set, she targeted Rybakina’s forehand and broke early for a 3-1 lead. When Rybakina threatened to come back immediately, as she had in the first set, Sabalenka held firm, overcoming another double fault to further extend her lead to 4-1 before winning the set with an ace.
After an impressive second set from Sabalenka, the match went into a tense third set. Initially the pair battled it out, both having the courage to go for their shots, to maintain power, but it was Sabalenka who finally broke through, ending an entertaining finale with 17 aces and 51 winners.
“I need a few more days to realize what happened,” Sabalenka told Eurosport.
“I’m just super happy and proud. There are so many things in my head. I’m not on this planet right now. It’s kind of a relief, I was in the top 10 but I didn’t have a Grand Slam trophy yet and it was really difficult to get it, every slam was super emotional.
“It’s a relief, it’s a joy, I’m just proud of myself, of everyone.”
When asked how she would celebrate, Sabalenka replied with a laugh, “Probably eating everything I couldn’t this week.”
Rybakina was ranked 25th in the world before this tournament – a position that belies her talent and success – and she started the tournament playing on the outdoor courts.
His failure to break into the top 10 was mainly because ranking points from last year’s Wimbledon were scrapped due to the tournament’s decision to ban Russians and Belarusians from playing.
Reaching the final in Melbourne – where she beat three former Grand Slam winners along the way in Iga Światek, Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka – will no doubt help her move up the ranks.
“I hope we will have many more battles,” Rybakina told Sabalenka when presenting the trophy. “It was a good year for me and I hope that next year I will achieve the same result and (do) even better.”