Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Sabalenka subdues Rybakina for breakthrough Grand Slam win

The thrilling final match between two of the most exciting power hitters in the women’s game ended 4-6 6-3 6-4.

• January 28, 2023
Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka {Credit: Sporting News]

Aryna Sabalenka bludgeoned her way to a maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open with a 4-6 6-3 6-4 win over Kazakh 22nd seed Elena Rybakina on Saturday.

It was a thrilling final match between two of the most exciting power hitters in the women’s game.

Sabalenka’s 11th straight win of the year will propel the Belarusian back to her career-high ranking of number two behind Iga Swiatek.

She is reaping the rewards of her improved mental stability.

Russian and Belarusian players are only allowed to compete as individual athletes without national affiliation at Melbourne Park due to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

With this, fifth seed Sabalenka also becomes the first neutral athlete to win a major.

Success has followed a period of introspection and change for Sabalenka.

She had often appeared to let her emotions halt her progress on the big stage, as she dropped her sports psychologist in pre-season.

Sabalenka also worked with a biomechanics trainer to improve her cannonball serve, which tended to fail her in big moments in the past.

The results were evident before the year’s first Grand Slam as she won the Adelaide International 1 title.

After securing her first Grand Slam on Saturday, she dropped to the floor in delight.

She then walked up to Rybakina’s side of the court to hug her before embracing her emotional entourage in the players’ box.

Her coach Anton Dubrov cried with joy at one point.

“Thanks so much for an amazing atmosphere,” said Sabalenka, who received the trophy from former world number one Billie Jean King.

Rybakina triumphed at Wimbledon last year and reached the final high on confidence.

She was the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to beat three Grand Slam winners after toppling Swiatek, Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka.

The Russian-born Kazakh went up 3-1 with a comfortable hold after Sabalenka dropped her serve with a double fault and sent a forehand long.

But then she came under pressure and allowed her opponent to level the opening set at 4-4.

Rybakina hit back in gusty conditions at Rod Laver Arena to grab another break as Sabalenka double-faulted for a fifth time.

She went on to seal the set with a big serve the Belarusian returned into the net.

It was the first time Sabalenka had dropped a set in 11 matches in the year 2023, and the nerves began to show a bit.

But the 24-year-old composed herself and saved two break-points in the opening game of the next set.

Sabalenka then found a bit of consistency to break.

But she had to overcome a wobble to grab a 4-1 lead, after which she let out a huge roar and levelled the match with her 11th and 12th aces.

This helped her to take the contest to a third set.

Sabalenka served with venom and hammered deep returns in the decider to punch holes through Rybakina’s defence to take a 5-3 lead.

She double-faulted on one match point and squandered two more to draw gasps from the crowd.

“I kept telling myself that nobody said it was going to be easy. She was going to fight for it… I told myself, ‘Work for it, take deep breaths, just work’,” Sabalenka later said.

She took a few deep breaths and tried again, finally closing out the contest to claim the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.

Rybakina congratulated Sabalenka and acknowledged how hard her opponent had worked for her first major title.

“Hopefully, we’re going to have many more battles,” she said.

“I had goosebumps when everyone was cheering for us… I’m looking forward to coming back next year.

“It was an amazing two weeks for me, and hopefully, I’m going to have the same results and even better.”


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