Australian Open: Aryna Sabalenka finally wins her Holy Grail

Collin Abgrall, with AFP
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6:23 p.m., January 28, 2023

After failing three times in the Grand Slam semi-finals, Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka won the Australian Open on Saturday and thus finally won her Grail. “I’m still shaking, I’m still very nervous”: the first words of the champion were words of apology to begin her speech, proof of an emotion that she had already been unable to contain a few minutes earlier, at the moment when the final ball struck by her Kazakh opponent Elena Rybakina crashed too far behind the baseline of the court. The match ended with the score of 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 after 2h28 of combat. Sabalenka had not taken more than 1h49 to dismiss an opponent since the start of the tournament and Rybakina never more than 2h05.

Sabalenka then dropped her racket, lay down on the ground and cried, her hands on her face. She remained thus enough time so that her unfortunate adversary had time to come up to her to take her in his arms. With this title, Sabalenka (24) will regain second place in the world on Monday, the best ranking of her career already reached in August 2021. Rybakina, 23 and Wimbledon champion last year without WTA points distributed, will climb to 10th world rank, his best ranking as well.

“Thanks to my team, the craziest on the circuit”

“Thank you to my team, the craziest on the circuit! We went through difficult times last year, but you helped me so much, you deserve this trophy more than me”, launched Sabalenka in the direction of his box and more particularly his coach Anton Dubrov and his physical trainer Jason Stacy. To beat Rybakina, who relies like her on a huge serve followed by big strikes, Sabalenka deployed a very aggressive game (17 aces and 51 winning strokes for 28 unforced errors) and took a lot of risks, especially on her second balls from service with an average of 150 km/h against 136 km/h for his opponent.

This Belarusian game took a while to set up, which allowed Rybakina to win the first set quite easily, but ended up paying. In the second set, Sabalenka broke away 4-1, had two first set points on Rybakina’s serve at 5-3 and leveled a set all over her next service game by slamming an ace on second serve . The Kazakh then suffered more and more attacks from Sabalenka: she saved a break point at 2-2, but the Belarusian managed the decisive break two games later to break away 4-3, then 5-3 on an ace. Rybakina won her next face-off and forced Sabalenka to serve for the game.

Four match points to conclude

But concluding is never easy, especially when it comes to winning her first Major: Sabalenka needed four match points. “I know how much you have worked to get here,” Rybakina told him during the trophy presentation, wishing him “good luck for the rest of the season”. “Hopefully we’ll have some great fights again,” she added. To which the winner of the day, who had never lost against Rybakina in their three previous meetings (Wimbledon and Abu Dhabi 2021, Wuhan 2019), replied: “I hope we will meet again in the Grand Final Slam!”

Sabalenka remained on three knockout stages in Melbourne in the last three editions. She had already played three Grand Slam semi-finals (Wimbledon 2021, US Open 2021 and 2022) without ever reaching the final. But she had already played and won a final at the Australian Open, in 2021 in doubles, associated with the Belgian Elise Mertens. The year 2023 is off to a damn good start for the Belarusian who won his first two tournaments played (with Adelaide 1 just before the Major) by giving up only one set out of his eleven matches won, Saturday in the final in Melbourne against Rybakina.

The latter, who had never passed the third round in Melbourne in three participations, leaves this time, sad of a lost final, but nevertheless strong of a return to the highest level. To reach the final, she eliminated three Grand Slam winners: world No.1 Iga Swiatek in the round of 16, Jelena Ostapenko (17th) in the quarters and Victoria Azarenka (24th) in the semis.

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