Belarusian by birth Arina Sabalenka Defeated Elena Rybakina in three sets to win an exciting women’s race Australian Open Championship on the final Saturday, becoming the first player to compete under a neutral flag to claim a Grand Slam title.
Amid the conflict in Ukraine, Tennis Australia has asked both Russian and Belarusian players to compete as neutrals.
Sabalenka prevailed in the opening set, to beat the reigning Wimbledon champion 4-6 6-3 6-4 in a remarkable turnaround in Melbourne.
A break of Rybakina’s serve in the seventh game of a tense third set proved to be a decisive breakthrough for the fifth seed, who paved her way to eventual success.
A jittery start from Sabalenka — she made five double faults and won just four points on second serve in the first set — made it look like it was going to be a routine second grand slam for Rybakina as she secured the first set in 34 minutes.
But Sabalenka found precision as well as power in the second and third sets, with Rybakina faltering in the deciding stages. The Russian-born Kazakh, who is also a great hitter, scored three points in the tournament but served a long forehand in the fourth. Sabalenka fell to the ground, breaking down into tears upon winning her first major.
She celebrated going into the players’ box as her coach, Anton Dubrov, was seen sobbing into a washcloth.
“I’m still shaking and very nervous,” she told onlookers in her court speech before the presentation.
Upon receiving the trophy from Billie Jean King, Sabalenka thanked the American great for her pioneering work in the women’s game, and went on to thank her team, which she called “the craziest on the tour.”
“We had a lot of slip-ups last year,” she said. “We worked so hard, you guys deserve this trophy, it’s more about you than it is about me. Thank you so much for everything you do for me. I love you.”
The Minsk-born Sabalenka was competing in her first Grand Slam final, having previously lost three matches in the semifinals. Initially, the game opened with a double fault as nerves clearly played their part on an occasion like this. She later admitted that she did not “give my best” tactically in the first set.
In the second set, Rybakina hit a forehand and broke early to take a 3-1 lead. When Rybakina threatened to bounce back right away, as she did in the first set, Sabalenka held her ground and beat another double fault to extend her lead to 4-1 before clinching the set with a header.
After a great second set by Sabalenka, the match went tense in the deciding third set. At first, the pair went toe-to-toe, both having the guts to go in their shots, to keep up the power, but it was Sabalenka who broke through in the end.
“I need a few more days to realize what happened,” Sabalenka told Eurosport.
“I’m so happy and proud. There are so many things in my head. I’m not on this planet right now. It’s kind of a relief, I’ve been in the top 10 but I haven’t had a Grand Slam title yet and it’s been really hard to get it, every The slam was very emotional.
“It’s a relief, it’s a joy, I’m proud of myself, of everyone.”
Asked how to celebrate, Sabalenka said with a laugh, “I’ll probably eat everything I couldn’t this week.”
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