Belarusian-born Aryna Sabalenka defeated Elena Rybakina in three sets to win a thrilling women’s Australian Open final Saturday, becoming the first player competing under a neutral flag to secure a grand slam.
Amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, tournament organizer Tennis Australia required Russian and Belarusian players to compete as neutrals.
Outplayed in the opening set, Sabalenka came from behind to overpower the reigning Wimbledon champion 4-6 6-3 6-4 in a remarkable turnaround in Melbourne.
Breaking Rybakina’s serve in the seventh game 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 made five double faults and won only four points on the second serve in the first set – made it seem as if it would be a routine second grand slam for Rybakina as she secured the first set in 34 minutes.
But Sabalenka found accuracy as well as power in the second and third sets, with Rybakina faltering at crucial stages. The Russian-born Kazakh, who is also a big hitter, saw off three championship points but sent a forehand long on the fourth. Sabalenka fell to the ground, reduced to tears on wining her maiden major.
She celebrated by climbing to the players’ box where her coach, Anton Dubrov, could be seen sobbing into a towel.
“I’m still shaking and super nervous,” she told the spectators in her on-court speech before the presentation.
On receiving the trophy from Billie Jean King, Sabalenka thanked the American great for her pioneering work for the women’s game, and went on to thank her team, whom she described as the “craziest on tour.”
“We’ve been through a lot of downs last year,” she said. “We worked so hard, you guys deserve this trophy, it’s more about you than about me. Thank you so much for everything you do for me. I love you.”
Minsk-born Sabalenka was competing in her first grand slam final, having previously lost three major semifinals. Serving first, she opened the match with a double fault as nerves clearly played a part on an occasion such as this. She later admitted that she tactically didn’t “play my best” in the first set.
In the second set she targeted the Rybakina forehand and broke early for a 3-1 lead. When Rybakina threatened to break back immediately, as she had done in the first set, Sabalenka held firm, overcoming another double fault to further extend her lead at 4-1 before going on to clinch the set with an ace.
After an impressive second set from Sabalenka, the match entered a tense third set decider. Initially the pair went toe-to-toe, both having the bravery to go for their shots, to maintain the power, but it was Sabalenka who eventually broke through, ending an entertaining final 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’s so many things in my head. I’m not on this planet right now. It’s kind of relief, I’ve been in the top 10 but I didn’t have a grand slam trophy yet and it’s been really tough to get it, every slam was super emotional.
“It’s relief, it’s a joy, I’m just proud of myself, of everyone.”
Asked how she would celebrate, Sabalenka said, laughing: “Probably eating everything that I couldn’t this week.”
Rybakina was ranked 25th in the world coming into this tournament – a position which belies her talent and success – and she began the tournament playing on the outside courts.
Her failure to break into the top 10 stemmed mainly from the fact that ranking points from last year’s Wimbledon were removed because of the tournament’s decision to ban Russians and Belarusians from playing.
Reaching the final in Melbourne – where she defeated three former grand slam winners along the way in Iga Światek, Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka – will no doubt help her rise up the rankings.
“Hopefully we are going to have many more battles,” Rybakina told Sabalenka during the trophy presentation. “It was a good year for me and hopefully next year I am going to have the same result and (do) even better.”