Sabalenka wins her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open

One point shy of her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka fouled. And then she failed again. She made a face. She screamed and turned her back on the court. She rolled her shoulders and exhaled. Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not meant to happen without a bit of a fight on Saturday night.

Sabalenka knew deep down that this would be the case. She also knew that all the effort she put into it, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double faults, had to pay off in time. She just had to. And so, as she wasted a second match point missing a forehand, and a third missing another, Sabalenka did her best to remain calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She held there until a fourth chance to finish off Elena Rybakina presented itself, and this time, Sabalenka saw an equally powerful forehand from her opponent sail long. That was that.

The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback win over Wimbledon winner Rybakina. “Last game, yes of course I was a bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ‘No one tells you it’s going to be easy.’ You just have to work for it, work for it, to the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus, who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will move up to No. 2 in the rankings. the WTA on Monday.

“I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions,” he said, “and win this one.” The only set he lost all season was Saturday’s opener against Rybakina, who knocked out No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round. Tellingly, Sabalenka’s comments during the post-match ceremony were directed at his coach, Anton Dubrov, and his fitness trainer, Jason Stacy: he referred to them as "craziest team on tour".

“We’ve been through a lot, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first Grand Slam final and had been 0-3 in Grand Slam semifinals until this week. “We work very hard and you deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than me.” Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves, which produced 17 aces, helped take the sting out of seven double faults.

Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her attempt to break shots, Sabalenka somehow limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key stat: Sabalenka managed to rack up 13 break points, converting three, including 4-3 in the final set. that put her ahead forever. “She played very well today,” said Rybakina, who lost all four of his matches against Sabalenka, all in three sets.

“He was strong mentally and physically.” While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the former has been a problem. His brightest strength was also his most glaring flaw: his service. Capable of delivering aces, he also had a well-known problem with double faults, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including games with 20-plus. of its mechanics last August.

That, along with a commitment to trying to control her emotions (she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she’s confident in herself now) is really paying off. “She didn’t have a great serve last year, but she now she was super strong and served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old representing Kazakhstan. “Of course, I respect him. I know how much work it takes.” As seagulls cawed loudly as they flew overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket blows for nearly two and a half hours. The services were great. So big.

Rybakina’s fastest reached 121 mph (195 kph), Sabalenka’s 119 mph (192 kph). The points ran out quickly. So fast: Seven of the first 13 were aces. Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games over the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina was broken twice in the first set. And never again did Sabalenka decide to take the initiative further, and the reward for her high-risk, high-reward attitude proved too much for Rybakina in the final two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some nerves. Which makes a lot of sense to anyone: This was the biggest game of his career. In the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to stabilize. After the final point, he lay on his back on the court and stayed like that for a while, covering his face as his eyes filled with tears. A big difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double faults in a fourth-round loss. “I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to understand myself a little bit better.

It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said in her post-match press conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of champagne in hand. “I’m actually happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?

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