Sabalenka overpowers Rybakina for first Grand Slam win at Australian Open
29 January, 2023, 9:43 am
By Shrivathsa Sridhar
MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Aryna Sabalenka tamed her nerves to blast 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 featuring two power-hitters in the women’s game.
Sabalenka’s 11th straight win of the year will propel the Belarusian fifth seed back to her career-high ranking of number two behind Poland’s Iga Swiatek, as she reaps the rewards of an improved playing mindset in the New Year.
Success has followed a period of introspection and change for the 24-year-old, who often appeared to let her emotions halt her progress on the grandest stage with three previous semi-final defeats at the majors.
She dropped her sports psychologist in pre-season and also worked with a biomechanics trainer to improve her fiery serve, which tended to fail her in big moments in the past.
“It is even more enjoyable after all those tough matches,” Sabalenka told reporters. “I feel right now that I needed those tough losses to understand myself a bit better. It was like a preparation.”
“I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and a different Aryna.”
The results were evident before the year’s first Grand Slam as she won the Adelaide International 1 title.
With Russian and Belarusian players competing as individuals without national affiliation in Melbourne due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sabalenka becomes the first neutral athlete to win a major. But she played down the significance of the change.
“I think everyone still knows that I’m Belarusian player. That’s it,” she told reporters flatly.
After wrapping up her first Grand Slam earlier, she dropped to the floor in delight, then walked to Rybakina’s side of the court to hug her before embracing her emotional entourage in the players’ box. Sabalenka’s coach Anton Dubrov shed tears of joy.
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 3-1 up 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 she composed herself and saved two breakpoints in the opening game of the next set.
Sabalenka then found the 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 double-faulted on one matchpoint and squandered two more to draw gasps from the crowd.
“I was like, ‘Well, it’s going to be fun after the double-fault’,” Sabalenka said later.
She took a few deep breaths and tried again before finally closing out the contest to claim the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
“The last game, of course I was a little bit nervous. I kept telling myself ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy, you just have to work for it till the last point’,” she added.
“I’m super happy I was able to handle all those emotions and win this one.”
Rybakina acknowledged how hard her opponent had worked for her first major title.
“Hopefully we’re going to have many more battles,” she added. “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.”
Later in the evening, the Australian wild card pairing of Jason Kubler and Rinky Hijikata beat Hugo Nys and Jan Zielinski 6-4 7-6(4) to lift the men’s doubles title.
(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Melbourne; Editing by Hugh Lawson)