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 22nd seed 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 back to her career-high ranking of number two behind Iga Swiatek as she reaps the rewards of her improved mental stability.
With Russian and Belarusian players only allowed to compete as individual athletes without national affiliation at Melbourne Park due Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, fifth seed Sabalenka also becomes the first neutral athlete to win a major.
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 to hug her before embracing her emotional entourage in the players’ box.
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.”
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.
The Russian-born Kazakh went up 3-1 with a comfortable hold after Sabalenka dropped her serve with a double fault and sent a forehand long, but then she came under pressure and allowed her opponent to level the opening set at 4-4.
Rybakina hit back immediately in gusty conditions at Rod Laver Arena to grab another break as Sabalenka double-faulted for a fifth time, before going on to seal the set with a big serve the Belarusian returned into the net.
It was the first time that Sabalenka had dropped a set in 11 matches in 2023 year and the nerves began to show a bit, before the 24-year-old composed herself and saved two breakpoints in the opening game of the next set.
Sabalenka then found a bit of consistency to break but had to overcome a wobble to grab a 4-1 lead after which she let out a huge roar and levelled the match with her 11th and 12th aces to take the contest to a third set.
Sabalenka served with venom and hammered deep returns in the decider to punch holes through Rybakina’s defence to take a 5-3 lead. She then double-faulted on one matchpoint and squandered two more to draw gasps from the crowd.
“I kept telling myself that nobody said it was going to be easy. She was going to fight for it… I told myself, ‘Work for it, take deep breaths, just work’,” Sabalenka told host broadcaster Channel Nine.
She took a few deep breaths and tried again, finally closing out the contest to claim the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
“It was a really tough year and I had tough moments last year. We worked so hard. Right now, I’m just super proud of myself,” Sabalenka added.
Rybakina congratulated Sabalenka and 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.”