Aryna Sabalenka produced a brilliant comeback as she beat Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to win the Australian Open title and claim her first Grand Slam singles crown.
Outplayed in the first set by the Wimbledon champion in her first slam singles final, the Belarusian turned things round with outstanding hitting and a smart tactical change, holding her nerve to win a hard-hitting, outstanding, dramatic final.
As the final forehand from Rybakina went long, Sabalenka fell to her back, the tears immediately starting to flow.
“Thank you to my team, the craziest team on Tour, I would say,” the 24-year-old Sabalenka said, after receiving the trophy from Billie Jean King. “We’ve been through a lot of downs last year, we worked so hard. You guys deserve the trophy. It’s more for you than for me.”
Speaking to Eurosport soon after, Sabalenka said she was relieved to win that first slam title.
“I’m just super happy and proud,” she said. “It’s kind of a relief. I’ve been in the top 10 but never got a Grand Slam. It’s been really tough to get it. I’m super happy. It’s a relief but also a joy. I’m just proud of myself and my team.”
It’s a win that will see Sabalenka rise three places to 2 in the WTA rankings, while a first Grand Slam title is reward for the enormous work she has put in over the past year to fix serving problems, banishing her Grand Slam woes after years of disappointment.
On Saturday, she hit 17 aces and though she also did seven double faults, five of them came in the opening set. Rybakina, the Wimbledon champion also appearing in her first Australian Open final, fought hard throughout but came out second best. Sabelnka was rewarded for a tactical change as she targeted the forehand of Rybakina, and she held her nerve under pressure at the end to get over the line.
DOUBLE FAULTS COST SABALENKA DEAR IN FIRST SET
Sabalenka has done an incredible job to overcome the yips on her serve but in the first set, her Achilles heel was there again as double faults at crucial times proved costly.
The Belarusian began with a double fault but responded with an ace and then found another to hold serve in the opening game.
Rybakina, who beat three Grand Slam winners on the way to the final, hit three aces in a row to hold for 1-1 and then, after Sabalenka let slip a 40-0 lead, she broke serve to lead 2-1, taking advantage of another double fault at deuce.
The two women were trading massive blows on serve and from the baseline but at 4-3, Rybakina had a slight dip in concentration and Sabalenka found a couple of good returns to break for 4-4.
Sabelnka was going for big second serves throughout the set, with very little margin for error and it came back to hit her as she double-faulted twice, including on break point, as Rybakina moved ahead again at 5-4.
The Wimbledon champion was showing no sign of nerves and she duly served out to love to take the first set for the first time in their four meetings.
SABALENKA FIGHTS BACK IN STYLE
Sabalenka had won her last six matches at slams when she dropped the first set but she needed to save two break points in the first game of the second set.
Rybakina showed nice touch to match her power, with one drop shot especially impressive but Sabalenka was intent on getting back into the match and began to target the Rybakina forehand, a tactic that paid off.
Moving forward on her return position, Sabalenka found great depth on return to force a break point at 2-1. Rybakina saved it with a big ace but Sabalenka, looking more relaxed, forced two errors and moved ahead 3-1.
A first double fault of the second set cost her a chance to extend her lead to 4-1 but she held serve with an ace anyway. Rybakina, now under more pressure than at any stage in the match, saved three break points to hold for 2-4 but Sabalenka held again, and though Rybakina dug deep to hold a deuce game for 3-5, Sabalenka held her nerve, finishing off the set with a brilliant second-serve ace right ono the T.
SABELENKA CONTINUES ON THE ATTACK
The second serve of Rybakina was beginning to take a bit of a hammering and as the match wore on, she seemed to be getting more of a read on the first serve too.
Rybakina dug her heels in, though, finding more first serves to avoid trouble, as they both held serve twice to start the decider.
A first double fault of the match from Rybakina hinted at fragility and two big forehands from Sabalenka set up a first break point of the third set. Saved with big first serve. Rybakina held…..
Two games later, though, Rybakina again found herself under pressure and though she saved two break points, a backhand error gave Sabalenka another chance and she made no mistake, curling away a bounce smash to lead 4-3.
Rybakina didn’t let her head drop and smashed two return winners to get back to deuce in the next game. But Sabalenka dug herself out of trouble with two massive serves, including her 16th ace.
Rybakina held and though she looked shaky at 15-30 down, another ace set up match point. She double faulted on her first opportunity but a massive forehand set up a second, saved well by great defence from Rybakina.
The Kazakh then laced a forehand crosscourt to set up break point, but Sabalenka saved it with a 192kmh bullet. At deuce, Sabalenka again targeted the forehand and Rybakina found the net, to give the Belarusian a third Championship point, which Rybakina saved as Sabalenka’s backhand sailed just long. A big serve set up a fourth chance, and when a mis-hit forehand landed long, Sabelenka’s joy began.
Rybakina will rise to No 10 in the rankings after her run to the final.
Source: Tennis Majors
BDST: 1926 HRS, JAN 28, 2023