Aryna Sabalenka beats Elena Rybakina in three sets to win Australian Open title

<span>Photograph: Martin Keep/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Martin Keep/AFP/Getty Images

Throughout the supreme winning run she has compiled to start this season, Aryna Sabalenka continually stressed that her mentality has shifted. She is more composed now, willing to work for her opportunities instead of swinging thoughtlessly for the fences. Down a set to the Wimbledon champion in her first grand slam singles final, those principles were put to the ultimate test.

Under immense pressure until the desperate final game, Sabalenka did not balk. She focused on finding solutions and after a spectacular match filled with fearless, relentless shotmaking from both players, Sabalenka triumphed 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 over Elena Rybakina to win the Australian Open.

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Sabalenka, who hails from Belarus, is the first neutral athlete to win a singles grand slam tournament since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Asked if not having the flag associated with her name takes away from her victory, Sabalenka shrugged: “I think everyone still knows that I’m Belarusian player. That’s it.”

With her first major title, the fifth seed will return to No 2 in the world rankings, equaling her career-high ranking. Sabalenka remains unbeaten in 2023, winning her first 11 matches of the season with two titles to her name.

In a match between two of tennis’s biggest servers and shot-makers, the fundamental objective was clear for both – attack. Neither player shied away from the pressure of such a significant moment and they produced exquisite shotmaking from the beginning. After Sabalenka opened the match with two aces to hold, Rybakina responded with three.

During the opening stages, Rybakina’s experience from Wimbledon propelled her forward as the 23-year-old took the first set. But even after falling down a set, Sabalenka refused to betray any negative emotion.

With her considerably heavier ball – her ability to combine pace and spin, unlike Rybakina’s flatter ball – alongside her greater athleticism, Sabalenka knew that she had the edge over Rybakina in any neutral rally. As she began to read the Kazakhstani’s serve and punish her second serve, Sabalenka broke serve for a 3-1 lead and held on through numerous tough games to force a final set.

As the pressure rose, the level increased accordingly. Both swung freely, blazing winners from all parts of the court, but with her superior baseline game Sabalenka dominated rallies over four shots. She finally sealed the decisive break at 3-3 in the final set before seeing out two painfully tense service games. On her fourth match point, Sabalenka forced a final forehand error from Rybakina, and collapsed to the ground as a grand slam champion at last. “I kept telling myself: ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy, you just have to work for it, work for it till the last point.’” she said.

Elena Rybakina plays a shot
Elena Rybakina took the first set before Aryna Sabalenka took control. Photograph: Jaimi Joy/Reuters

Her victory is a validation of the perseverance and toil it has taken to improve both her mentality and game. As recently as two years ago, she was ranked fourth in the world but she had never passed the fourth round of a grand slam tournament. She couldn’t handle the pressure.

When she finally broke through, Sabalenka suffered three bruising semi-final losses. Most recently, she led Iga Swiatek 4-1 in last year’s US Open semi-final before losing. Sabalenka describes those trials as blessings in disguise. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just different Aryna, you know?” she said.

Last year, Sabalenka arrived in Australia in one of the most difficult periods of her career. Her serve had completely deserted her. She spent her time in Adelaide throwing in underarm serves because she simply could not serve. In Melbourne, she hit 56 double faults across her four matches. By February, her coach, Anton Dubrov, thought she should find a replacement.

“He just said: ‘I don’t know what to do. I think you need to find someone else who’s going to help you.’ But I knew that it’s not about him. It’s just something about me. I just have to figure out the problem. We have to get through it,” she said.

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But Sabalenka never stopped trying to improve. She hired a psychologist, who helped her manage her emotions, before recently deciding to hold herself accountable. As her serve struggles continued throughout the season, she enlisted the help of a biomechanics expert during the summer and watched countless videos in order to improve. Most importantly, she learned to respect her own talent.

“I always had this weird feeling that when people would come to me and ask for signature: ‘Why are you asking for signature? I’m nobody. I’m a player. I don’t have a grand slam.’ I just changed how I feel. I start to respect myself more,” she said.

All of those decisions have paid off in full. On Saturday, she relied heavily on her serve to hold on in the tight final games. Alongside the absurd statistic of 51 winners to just 28 errors in a major final, she served 17 aces.

Although she was outplayed at the close, Rybakina herself produced some of the best weeks of her career. She played sublime tennis throughout the fortnight and, most importantly, she swiftly backed up her Wimbledon title. On Monday, she will rise to No 10 in the rankings from her current position of 25th, breaking the top 10 for the first time in her career at last.