Belarusian-born Aryna Sabalenka defeated Elena Rybakina in three sets to win a thrilling women’s Australian Open final Saturday, becoming the first player competing under a neutral flag to secure a grand slam.
Amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, tournament organizer Tennis Australia required Russian and Belarusian players to compete as neutrals.
Outplayed in the opening set, Sabalenka came from behind to overpower the reigning Wimbledon champion 4-6 6-3 6-4 in a remarkable turnaround in Melbourne.
Breaking Rybakina’s serve in the seventh game of a tense third set proved to be the crucial breakthrough for the fifth seed, whose venomous serve and intense groundstrokes ultimately paved the way for her success.
A nervous start from Sabalenka – she made five double faults and won only four points on the second serve in the first set – made it seem as if it would be a routine second grand slam for Rybakina as she secured the first set in 34 minutes.
But Sabalenka found accuracy as well as power in the second and third sets, with Rybakina faltering at crucial stages. The Russian-born Kazakh, who is also a big hitter, saw off three championship points but sent a forehand long on the fourth and Sabalenka fell to the ground, reduced to tears on wining her maiden major.
She celebrated by climbing to the players’ box where her coach, Anton Dubrov, could be seen sobbing into a towel.
“I’m still shaking and super nervous,” she told the spectators in her on-court speech before the presentation.
On receiving the trophy from Billie Jean King, Sabalenka thanked the American great for her pioneering work for the women’s game, and went on to thank her team, whom she described as the “craziest on tour.”
“We’ve been through a lot of downs last year,” she said. “We worked so hard, you guys deserve this trophy, it’s more about you than about me. Thank you so much for everything you do for me. I love you.”
More to follow.