Aryna Sabalenka, a Belarusian-born player, defeated Elena Rybakina in three sets to win the women’s Australian Open final on Saturday. She became the first player to win a grand slam while playing under a neutral flag.
Tournament organizer Tennis Australia required Russian and Belarusian players to compete as neutrals despite the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
In a remarkable turnaround in Melbourne, Sabalenka defeated the defending Wimbledon champion 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 after being outplayed in the first set.
The fifth seed made a crucial breakthrough by breaking Rybakina’s serve in the seventh game of a tense third set. Her venomous serve and intense groundstrokes ultimately led to her success.
It appeared to be a routine second grand slam for Rybakina as she won the first set in 34 minutes despite Sabalenka’s nervous start, when she committed five double faults and won only four points on the second serve.
However, Sabalenka won the second and third sets with power and accuracy, while Rybakina faltered at crucial points. The Kazakh player, who was born in Russia and is also a big hitter, won three championship points but missed a forehand on the fourth. When Sabalenka won her first major, she broke down in tears and fell to the ground.
She went up to the players’ box to celebrate, where her coach Anton Dubrov could be seen crying into a towel.
In her on-court speech prior to the presentation, she stated to the spectators, “I’m still shaking and super nervous.”
Sabalenka thanked Billie Jean King for her pioneering work in the field of women’s tennis when she accepted the trophy. She then thanked her team, which 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.”
Sabalenka, who was born in Minsk, was playing in her first grand slam final after losing three major semifinal matches. She served first and committed a double fault to begin the match, indicating that nerves played a role on this occasion. She later admitted that she did not “play my best” in the first set because of her strategy.
She broke early in the second set to take a 3-1 lead and target the forehand of Rybakina. Sabalenka held firm when Rybakina threatened to immediately respond, as she had in the first set. She overcame a second double fault to increase her lead to 4-1 and then won the set with an ace.
The match entered a tense third set decider after Sabalenka’s impressive second set. At first, the two went head-to-head, with both bravely going for their shots to keep the power, but Sabalenka eventually won.
Sabalenka stated to Eurosport, “I need a few more days to realize what happened.”
“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.”
When asked how she planned to celebrate, Sabalenka laughed and said, “Probably eating everything that I couldn’t this week.”
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