MELBOURNE: An emotional Aryna Sabalenka said it will take a “few more days” to sink in after battling from a set down to win a maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open on Saturday. The hard-hitting Belarusian collapsed to the court in tears after winning 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 against Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in a high-quality 2hr 28min arm-wrestle on Rod Laver Arena.
The 24-year-old Sabalenka wiped away tears before getting a warm hug from Moscow-born Rybakina, who played a full part in a thrilling match between two of the most powerful hitters in the women’s game. Sabalenka, the fifth seed and form player in 2023, then ran to her player’s box to celebrate with her team. “Thank you, my team, the craziest team on the tour. We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” Sabalenka said, addressing her team after receiving the trophy.
Turning to beaten 22nd seed Rybakina, she added: “You’re such a great player and of course we are going to have many more battles, hopefully in finals of the Grand Slams.” Asked by reporters if it was the greatest match she had ever played, Sabalenka said: “I would say it was. She played unbelievable tennis. I fought so hard to win this one. I think the tennis was great… I really enjoyed this battle.”
Sabalenka will now rise to second in the world rankings behind Poland’s Iga Swiatek, equaling her career high, having triumphed in her first Grand Slam final. The finale was a captivating match of brutal groundstrokes, precision serving and wonderful rallies from two players at the top of their game. It was a fitting end to two weeks of drama and shocks at Melbourne Park. “I need a few more days to realize what just happened,” Sabalenka told Australia’s Channel Nine. “Oh my god, I’m speechless, to be honest.”
‘Take a deep breath’
Rybakina cruised through the first set in 34 minutes but Sabalenka scrapped her way back in a 57-minute second set to take it to a nervy decider. It was then a case of which of the big servers would blink first in a toe-to-toe battle. At 3-3 Rybakina – who represents Kazakhstan – could not find enough first serves and though she saved two break points, a third was too much, and Sabalenka had the finish line in sight.
Another ace took her to 5-3 but the 23-year-old Rybakina held to force Sabalenka to test her nerves and serve for the championship. She was up to the challenge, but needed four nerve-shredding match points after a display where she hit an astonishing 51 winners and 17 aces. She remains unbeaten in 2023. “I just kept telling myself that nobody said this is going to be easy. She’s going to fight, this is the final, just work for it,” Sabalenka said afterwards, describing how she got through those four match points.
“Take a deep breath and just work. I was just super happy that I was able to handle all the emotions in the last game, it was super tough for me,” added Sabalenka, who had reached three Grand Slam semi-finals before this year but never gone farther. She suffered nerves in the past and struggled badly with her serve last year. “They were really tough matches and I just couldn’t understand until right now that I really needed that to understand what I have to change,” Sabalenka added, casting her mind back. “I now know what else I have to work on and I’m just super happy right now to break through this wall.”
Rybakina will have the consolation of breaking into the top 10 for the first time, after reaching her second Grand Slam final in seven months. She was awarded no ranking points for her Wimbledon win because of the ban on Russian and Belarusian players there. “I don’t think tomorrow I’m going to feel different just because of the ranking now,” said a disappointed Rybakina, who is projected to rise to 10th from her current 25th when the new rankings are published on Monday. – AFP