Aryna Sabalenka, with a breathtaking display of power and unnerving composure, won her first Grand Slam title by defeating Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the final of the Australian Open.
It was a dramatic, sometimes dizzying 2-hour, 28-minute contest -- utterly befitting a major final. After squandering three match points Saturday, Sabalenka converted her fourth when a Rybakina forehand sailed long.
The No.5 seeded Sabalenka fell to her back beyond the baseline and tears came into her eyes. She posted more aces (17 to 9), winners (51 to 31) and overall points (109 to 103) than the reigning Wimbledon champion. Sabalenka's ace count was one shy of her career high and the second most in a tour final going back to 2008.
“I think it’s even more enjoyable, I would say, after all those tough matches,” Sabalenka said. “I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little 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 just different Aryna.”
In the critical break of the third set -- with Rybakina serving at 3-all -- Sabalenka started swinging harder. Her average forehand speed coming in hovered around 77 mph, but in that game it was 87. By comparison, men’s finalists Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas average in the low 80s.
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Sabalenka, a remarkably gifted athlete, has always been burdened by the expectations that come with that searing skill set. It’s a weight she has struggled with while learning to master the most important element of professional tennis: self-control.
And now, that wait is over.
During the final game, Sabalenka told herself it was never going to be easy, that `you just have to work for it, work for it till the last point.’
“I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions and win this one.”
Sabalenka received the championship trophy from Billie Jean King, whom she thanked for everything she’s done for women’s tennis.
“I’m still shaking and super nervous,” Sabalenka said. “My team -- the craziest team on tour, I would say. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs the last year. We worked so hard. You guys deserve this trophy, it’s more about you than me.”
Playing in her first major final, the 24-year-old was a revelation. The match in Rod Laver Arena was, in effect, a microcosm of her career; Sabalenka confronted her double-fault demons -- and ultimately defeated them.
“I would say that not many girls can put me really under the pressure,” Rybakina told reporters. “Against her, it’s not easy because she has a great serve and she plays really aggressive. Her ball is coming very heavy. There is maybe few girls who plays like this.
“Today I had some opportunities. Didn’t take.”
Going forward, this result could dramatically alter the landscape at the top of the Hologic WTA Tour.
“I think this is the beginning of her going on a tear,” ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez said afterward on the broadcast. “She’s going to win more Grand Slams.”
What a final.— wta (@WTA) January 28, 2023
Can't wait for more of these battles 🫂#AusOpen pic.twitter.com/nrxPk5VwaB
On Monday, Sabalenka will match her career high when she moves up to No.2 in the rankings. She finds herself 4,385 behind Swiatek, but the top-ranked player is defending 6,270 points through Roland Garros -- the downside of winning six consecutive tournaments and 37 straight matches a year ago. Rybakina will make her Top 10 debut.
Sabalenka has now won all 11 of her matches in this new year and that opening set against the No.22-seeded Rybakina was the first one she’s dropped. She’s now won all four career matches against Rybakina -- all in three sets.
“I know how hard you’ve worked for that,” Rybakina said, addressing Sabalenka. “Hopefully we’re going to have many more battles.”
Sabalenka’s serving issues were a leading storyline a year ago, but she worked hard to get them solved. She made a point by choosing to serve first against Rybakina, but when she double-faulted on the first point, an uneasy murmur stirred in the Rod Laver Arena crowd. She had lost three previous major semifinals before coming to Melbourne Park -- would nerves overtake her in another big spot? Sabalenka’s next swing produced an ace.
29 - @SabalenkaA is the 29th different women's player in the Open Era to secure the title at the Australian Open and the 58th different women's player in the Open Era to secure a Grand Slam title. Marching. #AusOpen pic.twitter.com/6t5fvPhPSg— OptaAce (@OptaAce) January 28, 2023
On the strength of two more aces, Sabalenka led her second service game 40-love when Rybakina came back to collect the first break. At 40-all, Sabalenka double-faulted again and then whipped a forehand wide -- and it seemed like 2022 all over again.
But with Rybakina serving at 4-3, Sabalenka leveled the set with some artful returns -- and finished it with a backhand pass. But when the chance to back it up came, she did not seize the opportunity. With her first serve missing, Sabalenka began to overhit the second. A double fault gave Rybakina a second (and decisive) break and she quickly served it out.
After winning each of her first 20 sets in the new year, Sabalenka finally lost one. And while she produced five aces in the opening frame, it was five double faults that cost her. Rybakina, meanwhile, matched her in aces and had zero double faults.
“I think Aryna raise her level in the second set,” Rybakina said. “She played really well, aggressive, a bit less mistakes. I should have been also more aggressive in some moments. She was strong mentally, physically.”
The second set, though, belonged to Sabalenka. She tightened up her service game -- and was more aggressive attacking Rybakina’s manageable second serve. An errant forehand gave Sabalenka a break and an irreversible 3-1 lead.
The tense third set boiled over in the seventh game. Sabalenka, swinging relentlessly, fashioned her third break point of game -- and finished it with an overhead smash.
Sabalenka is the 58th different woman in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam title. The last to do it was Rybakina a year ago at Wimbledon.
Sabalenka called it the best day of her life -- and the best match she ever played. How would she celebrate?
“I will have some good pizza, of course, and a lot of sweets,” she said, holding a flute of champagne. “Maybe a little bit of Champagne. Cheers.”