Elena Rybakina won her first title of the season, and the first WTA 1000 title of her career, at the BNP Paribas Open on Sunday.
In a reversal of this year’s Australian Open championship match, the No.10 seed Rybakina defeated No.2 seed Aryna Sabalenka 7-6(11), 6-4 in the final, triumphing at the first event of 2023’s Sunshine Double.
"Feels amazing," Rybakina said in her post-match press conference. "It's been tough but really good two weeks for me here."
Rybakina picked up her fourth career WTA singles title. It is her first title since her breakthrough Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon last summer.
Getting on the board: Sabalenka came into the match with a 4-0 record against Rybakina, but each of those meetings had gone three sets. This time around, Rybakina gritted out the first-set tiebreak, then fended off a late second-set comeback by the World No.2 to grab her first win over Sabalenka.
"We both had chances [in the first set], but in the end, it went my way," Rybakina said. "So I think it was important this first set, and then it was a bit easier to start the second with an early break.
"This tiebreak was really epic, I would say, with all these double faults and nerves. So in the end, it was just focusing on every point and try to fight till the end."
Rybakina has now won her past four matches versus Top 2-ranked opponents. She beat then-No.2 Ons Jabeur in the 2022 Wimbledon final and defeated World No.1 Iga Swiatek two times this season, in the Australian Open Round of 16 and the Indian Wells semifinals this week.
For just the third time this century, the Australian Open finalists met again in the Indian Wells final. This also happened in 2000 (Lindsay Davenport defeated Martina Hingis in both finals) and 2012 (Victoria Azarenka beat Maria Sharapova both times), meaning this is the first of those occasions that the Australian Open runner-up avenged her loss in the Indian Wells final.
Sabalenka halted: It is only Sabalenka’s second loss of the season, as she falls to 17-2 on the year. Sabalenka was aiming to become the first player to win three titles in 2023, adding to her crowns at the Australian Open and Adelaide International 1.
Instead, Sabalenka remains level with Belinda Bencic (Adelaide International 2 and Abu Dhabi champion) for the most titles won so far this year. Sunday was also Sabalenka's first loss in her five career WTA 1000 finals.
Rybakina rising: Rybakina had already shown strong form in the semifinals with a straight-sets dismissal of Swiatek. By defeating Sabalenka as a follow-up, Rybakina became the first player to defeat the World No.1 and World No.2 at Indian Wells in the same year.
The battles between these two 🔥🔥— wta (@WTA) March 19, 2023
Aryna 🫂 Elena pic.twitter.com/aJw2bqgi4i
On Sunday, Rybakina was stronger behind her second service, where she won 52 percent of points. Sabalenka only won one-third of her second-serve points in the final.
With the title, Rybakina is projected to rise from her current career-high ranking of No.10 to a new career-high of World No.7 in Monday’s updated singles rankings. Sabalenka will remain at World No.2.
Match moments: Sabalenka claimed the first break for 3-2 with a winning lob, but she hit a double fault to hand the break back and level the set at 4-4. Another double fault by Sabalenka gave Rybakina a set point at 6-5, but Rybakina fired a backhand long on that chance, and the duo moved into a tiebreak.
The pair battled back and forth in a grueling 17-minute tiebreak, where Rybakina saw four more set points erased. Sabalenka used powerful forehands to garner two set points of her own in the breaker, but she fired unforced errors on those chances.
Sabalenka’s 10th double fault gave Rybakina her sixth set point at 12-11, where the reigning Wimbledon champion closed out the set after a Sabalenka forehand flew long. Rybakina is now 6-0 in tiebreaks this season.
Rybakina held all the momentum as she powered to a 5-2 lead in the second set. Sabalenka went on a brief hot streak, winning eight points in a row to get to 5-4, but Rybakina conjured up another unreturned serve on her first championship point to close out the win.