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Sabalenka subdues Rybakina for breakthrough Slam crown at Australian Open

Sabalenka subdues Rybakina for breakthrough Slam crown at Australian Open

MELBOURNE: Aryna Sabal­enka bludgeoned her way to a maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Kazakh Elena Rybakina on Saturday in a thrilling final between two of the most exciting power-hitters in the women’s game.

Sabalenka’s 11th straight win of the year will propel the Belarusian fifth seed back to her career-high ranking of number two behind Iga Swiatek as she reaps the rewards of her improved mental stability.

Success has followed a period of introspection and change for Sabalenka, who had often appeared to let her emotions halt her progress on the big stage, as she dropped her sports psychologist in pre-season.

Sabalenka also worked with a biomechanics trainer to improve her cannonball serve, which tended to fail her in big moments in the past, and the results were evident before the year’s first Grand Slam as she won the Adelaide International 1 title.

After finally securing her first Grand Slam on Saturday, she dropped to the floor in delight and then walked up to Rybakina’s side of the court.

The 24-year-old Sabalenka wiped away tears before getting a warm hug from Moscow-born Rybakina, who played a full part in high-quality 2hr 28min arm-wrestle on Rod Laver Arena.

Sabalenka then ran to her player’s box to celebrate with her emotional entourage. Her coach Anton Dubrov was seen crying with joy at one point.

“Thanks so much for an amazing atmosphere,” said Sabalenka, who received the trophy from former world number one Billie Jean King. “And of course my team, the craziest team on tour. We’ve been through a lot of downs last year, we worked so hard. I hope next year I come back and I show you even better tennis, and you guys support me even more.”

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.”

With Russian and Belarusian players competing as individuals without national affiliation in Melbourne due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sabalenka becomes the first neutral athlete to win a major. But she played down the significance of the change.

“I think everyone still knows that I’m Belarusian player. That’s it,” she told reporters flatly.

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 realise what just happened,” Sabalenka told Australia’s Channel Nine. “Oh my god, I’m speechless, to be honest.”

Rybakina, who triumphed at Wimbledon last year, came into the final high on confidence as the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to beat three Grand Slam winners along the way after toppling Swiatek, Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka.

She 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 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. “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.

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.

Rybakina acknowledged how hard her opponent had worked for her first major title.

“Hopefully we’re going to have many more battles,” she said. “I had goosebumps when everyone was cheering for us... I’m looking forward to coming back next year.. It was an amazing two weeks for me and hopefully I’m going to have the same results and even better.”

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2023

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