MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 28: Aryna Sabalenka poses with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after winning the Women's Singles Final match against Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan during day 13 of the 2023 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 28, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia.
(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Belarusian-born Aryna Sabalenka defeated Elena Rybakina in three sets to win a thrilling Australian Open final on Saturday, becoming the first player competing under a neutral banner to win a grand slam.
Amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, tournament organizer Tennis Australia has demanded that Russian and Belarusian players compete as neutrals.
Outclassed in the first set, Sabalenka came from behind to dominate the reigning Wimbledon champion 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a remarkable turnaround in Melbourne.
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Breaking Rybakina's serve in the seventh game of a tense third set proved to be the crucial breakthrough for the fifth seed, whose dangerous serve and intense groundstrokes paved the way for her success.
A nervous start from Sabalenka—she committed five double faults and won just four second-serve points in the first set—made it look like it would be a routine second Grand Slam for Rybakina, as she clinched the opening set in 34 minutes.
But Sabalenka found precision and power in the second and third sets, with Rybakina faltering in crucial stages.
The Russian-born Kazakh grabbed three championship points but sent out a long forehand in the fourth.
Sabalenka fell to the ground, crying as she won her first race.
Aryna Sabalenka celebrates winning championship point in the women's singles final match against Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan during day 13 of the Australian Open 2023 at Melbourne Park on January 28, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia.
(Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)
He celebrated by going up to the players' box where his coach, Anton Dubrov, could be seen sobbing into a towel.
“I'm still shaking and super nervous,” she told viewers in her on-court speech before the performance.
Receiving the trophy from Billie Jean King, Sabalenka thanked the American for her pioneering work for women's tennis and thanked her team, which she described as the "craziest on tour."
“We've been through a lot of casualties in the past year,” he said.
“We work very hard, you guys deserve this trophy, it's more about you than me.
Thank you very much for everything you do for me.
I love them."
Sabalenka, born in Minsk, 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 her nerves clearly played a role on an occasion like this.
She later admitted that she tactically did not "play her 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 break immediately, as he had done in the first set, Sabalenka held her ground, overcoming another double fault to further extend his lead to 4-1 before clinching the set with an ace.
After an impressive second set from Sabalenka, the match entered a tense deciding third set.
Initially, the pair went head-to-head, both having the guts to go for their shots, to maintain power, but it was Sabalenka who finally broke through.
"I need a few more days to realize what happened," Sabalenka told Eurosport.
“I am super happy and proud.
There are so many things in my head.
I'm not on this planet right now.
It's a relief, I've been in the top 10 but I didn't have a Grand Slam trophy yet and it's been very difficult to get it, every Slam was super emotional."
"It's a relief, it's a joy, I'm proud of myself, of everyone."
Asked how she would celebrate, Sabalenka said, laughing: "Probably eating everything I couldn't this week."
Australian Open 2022