Belarusian by birth Ariana Sabalenka Defeated Elena Rybakina in three sets to win an exciting women’s race Australian Open Final Saturday, becoming the first player to compete under a neutral flag to claim a Grand Slam title.
Amid the conflict in Ukraine, Tennis Australia has asked both Russian and Belarusian players to compete as neutrals.
Sabalenka prevailed in the opening set, to beat the reigning Wimbledon champion 4-6 6-3 6-4 in a remarkable turnaround in Melbourne.
A break of Rybakina’s serve in the seventh game of a tense third set proved to be a decisive breakthrough for the fifth seed, who paved her way to eventual success.
A jittery start from Sabalenka — she made five double faults and won just four points on second serve in the first set — made it look like it was going to be a routine second grand slam for Rybakina as she secured the first set in 34 minutes.
But Sabalenka found precision as well as power in the second and third sets, with Rybakina faltering in the deciding stages. The Russian-born Kazakh, who is also a great hitter, scored three points in the tournament but served a long forehand in the fourth. Sabalenka fell to the ground, breaking down into tears upon winning her first major.
She celebrated going into the players’ box as her coach, Anton Dubrov, was seen sobbing into a washcloth.
“I am still very shaky and nervous,” she told viewers in her court speech before the presentation.
Upon receiving the trophy from Billie Jean King, Sabalenka thanked the American great for her pioneering work in the women’s game, and went on to thank her team, which she called “the craziest on the tour.”
“We had a lot of slip-ups last year,” she said. “We worked so hard, you guys deserve this trophy, it’s more about you than it is about me. Thank you so much for everything you do for me. I love you.”
The Minsk-born Sabalenka was competing in her first Grand Slam final, having previously lost three matches in the semifinals. Initially, the game opened with a double fault as nerves clearly played their part on an occasion like this. She later admitted that she did not “give my best” tactically in the first set.
In the second set, Rybakina hit a forehand and broke early to take a 3-1 lead. When Rybakina threatened to bounce back right away, as she did in the first set, Sabalenka held her ground and beat another double fault to extend her lead to 4-1 before clinching the set with a header.
After a great second set by Sabalenka, the match went tense in the deciding third set. At first the duo went toe-to-toe, both having the guts to go for their shots, to conserve strength, but it was Sabalenka who eventually broke through, ending with an entertaining final with 17 aces and 51 winners.
“I need a few more days to realize what happened,” Sabalenka told Eurosport.
“I’m so happy and proud. There are so many things in my head. I’m not on this planet right now. It’s kind of a relief, I’ve been in the top 10 but I haven’t had a Grand Slam title yet and it’s been really hard to get it, every The slam was very emotional.
“It’s a relief, it’s a joy, I’m proud of myself, of everyone.”
Asked how to celebrate, Sabalenka said with a laugh, “I’ll probably eat everything I couldn’t this week.”
Rybakina was ranked 25th in the world coming into this tournament—a position that belies her talent and success—and the tournament began playing on outdoor courts.
Her failure to break into the top 10 stemmed mainly from the fact that ranking points from last year’s Wimbledon Championships were removed due to 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 Schuetek, Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka – will undoubtedly help her move up the rankings.
“We hope to have more fights,” Rybakina told Sabalenka during the trophy presentation. “It’s been a good year for me and I hope to get the same result next year and (do) even better.”