Belarusian-born Aryna Sabalenka defeated Elena Rybakina in three sets to win the thrilling women’s Australian Open on Saturday, becoming the first player to win a Grand Slam under a neutral banner.
Amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, tournament organizer Tennis Australia has asked Russian and Belarusian players to play as neutrals.
Sabalenka was beaten in the first set and came from behind to beat the defending Wimbledon champions 4-6 6-3 6-4 in a stunning comeback in Melbourne.
Breaking Rybakina’s serve in the seventh game of a tense third set proved to be the key breakthrough for the fifth seed, with her vicious serve and furious strokes ultimately paving the way for her success.
Sabalenka’s tight start — she made five double faults on serve in the second game of the first set and won just four points — allowed Rybakina to seal the first set in 34 minutes, a Seems like a regular second slam.
But Sabalenka found accuracy and power in the second and third sets, while Rybakina faltered in the crucial stages. The Russian-born Kazakh was also an excellent batsman, scoring three championship points but hitting a forehand in the fourth. Sabalenka fell to the ground, in tears as she won her maiden Grand Slam.
She celebrated by climbing to the players’ box, where her coach, Anton Dubrov, could be seen sobbing into a towel.
“I’m still shaking, very nervous,” she told the audience in an on-court address ahead of her speech.
After accepting the trophy from Billie Jean King, Sabalenka thanked the American great for his pioneering work on the women’s game and went on to thank her team, which she described as “the best on tour. crazy”.
“We had a lot of setbacks last year,” she said. “We work so hard and you guys deserve this trophy, it’s more about you than me. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me. I love you.”
Minsk-born Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam final after losing three previous Grand Slam semi-finals. Serving first, she opened with a double fault as nerves clearly played a part in the situation. She later admitted that she didn’t “play my best game” tactically in the first set.
In the second set, she targeted Rybakina’s forehand and broke early to take a 3-1 lead. When Rybakina threatened an immediate counterattack, as she did in the first set, Sabalenka held her ground and overcame another double fault to extend her 4-1 lead even further, before winning with An ace locked the set.
After an impressive second set by Sabalenka, the match went into a tense third-set tiebreaker. The two initially shot bravely from head to toe, maintaining power, but it was Sabalenka who finally broke through.
“It will be a few days before I realize what happened,” Sabalenka told Eurosport.
“I’m very happy and proud. I’ve got a lot on my mind. I’m not on this planet right now. It’s a relief, I’m in the top 10, but I don’t have a Grand Slam trophy yet, it’s really great to get it. Difficult, every Grand Slam is very exciting.
“It’s a relief, it’s a joy, and I’m so proud of myself and everyone.”
Asked how she would celebrate, Sabalenka laughed and said: “Probably eat everything I can’t eat this week.”