Aryna Sabalenka was playing as a neutral when she won the women’s singles title on Saturday at the Australian Open, but her country’s name, Belarus, or rather ‘BYN’, will not feature on the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup due to the War in Ukraine.
I would say that not many girls can put me really under the pressure. Against her, it’s not easy because she has a great serve and she plays really aggressive. Her ball is coming very heavy. There is maybe few girls who plays like this... It's the best day of my life right now. Aryna Sabalenka
Belarus is widely perceived as supportive of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and has been excluded from much of sport alongside its ally, meaning their tennis players are not allowed to compete under their national flags.
Sabalenka became the first player whose country name will be omitted from the trophy, and, when asked about it, she responded: “I think everyone still knows that I’m a Belarusian player. That’s it!”
She came from a set down to defeat Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, 4-6 6-3 6-4, in a battle of two of the tour’s big-hitters in the AO final.
Rybakina was born in Russia but she became a citizen of Kazakhstan in June 2018, after the Russian Tennis Federation refused to fund her, and support was promised from the Kazakh association.
She has flourished as a result, winning Wimbledon last year, but she also became a casualty of the war when she was denied 2000 ranking points for her efforts after the WTA punished the All England Club for excluding Russian and Belarusian players.
Sabalenka had to sit on the sidelines during the grass court season last year, and confessed that she couldn’t watch Wimbledon but that the enforced break had helped her recalibrate her game, and she has found a new calmness and sorted out the yips on her serve as a result.
Rybakina became the first women’s player since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to beat 3 Grand Slam winners in one edition of the Australian Open in Iga Swiatek, Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka, and, before them, she had eliminated last year’s finalist, Danielle Collins.
As for Sabalenka, she hadn’t conceded a set in 2023 after racing through to win the Adelaide International the first week of January.
While Rybakina co-led the women’s event with a fastest serve of 195km/h, Sabalenka wasn’t far behind at 193km/h.
Between them, Sabalenka and Rybakina provided one of the best ladies’ singles finals in recent memory on Saturday.
Rybakina drew first blood, pocketing the opening set, but Sabalenka recovered well to force a decider, where she converted her 4th championship point to end the 148-minute gladiatorial battle.
The Belarusian double-faulted long on an initial match point, saw 2 more evaporate through unforced errors, and eventually needed to save a break point before clinching the thriller against Rybakina.
What was she thinking amid that eventful conclusion in Melbourne?
“Well, it’s going to be fun after the double-fault,” Sabalenka laughed afterwards. “Of course I was a little bit nervous. I kept telling myself like, ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy, you just have to work for it, work for it till the last point’.”
Closing the contest out had proven a challenge for Sabalenka, but she got herself over the line, when an errant Rybakina forehand cued the celebrations for the Belarusian, who now has a 4-0 lead over the Kazakh in their head-to-head.
Afterwards she praised her team, led by coach Anton Dubrov: “I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions and win this one. I’m still shaking and super nervous.
“My team, the craziest team on tour, I would say. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs the last year. We worked so hard.
“You guys deserve this trophy, it’s more about you than me. Thank you so much for everything you are doing for me. I love you guys.”
The 24-year-old is the 59th different player to win a women’s singles Grand Slam in the Open Era, and the 29th different champion at Melbourne Park.
Following her win, Sabalenka wore a gorgeous pink dress at her photoshoot on Sunday along the scenic Yarra river, with champagne flowing freely, and the Australian Open trophy glistening brightly under the Melbourne sun.
With her win, Sabalenka returns to her career-best ranking of World No 2 on Monday, while Rybakina will break into the Top ten at No 10 for the first time.
The Belarusian commended Rybakina for providing a stern challenge during the final.
“I would say that not many girls can put me really under the pressure,” she said. “Against her, it’s not easy because she has a great serve and she plays really aggressive.
“Her ball is coming very heavy. There is maybe few girls who plays like this.”
Sabalenka comes from Minsk native and has long sported a tiger tattoo on her lower left arm.
“It’s tough to explain what I’m feeling right now,” said Sabalenka. “Just super happy. Proud. I don’t know how to explain.
“It’s the best day of my life right now.”
She has come a long way since AO 2022, when she could not find a serve, led the tour in double-faults and allowed her emotions to spill onto the court.
She has worked with a biomechanics expert to reshape her serve, and a psychologist to sort her head out, and, more importantly, has taken charge of her own destiny.
Only 29 double-faults in 7 matches resulted on her way to hoisting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy, and, having coughed up 5 in the first set against her fellow huge-hitter Rybakina, a mere 2 followed thereafter, while she registered more winners than unforced errors.
Her tally on Saturday of 51 to 28 marked her biggest differential of the entire two weeks.
“I start to respect myself more,” Sabalenka says. “I start to understand that actually I’m here because I work so hard, and I’m actually good player.”
Away from technique and improving the serve, Sabalenka added that a shift in her self-worth also played a massive role in her resurgence.
“I always had this weird feeling that when people would come to me and ask for a signature, I would be like, ‘Why are you asking for signature? I’m nobody. I’m a player. I don’t have a Grand Slam and all this stuff’,” said Sabalenka. “I just changed how I feel.
“Just having this understanding, that I’m a good player, I can handle a lot of emotions, a lot of things on court.
“Every time I had a tough moment on court, I was just reminding myself that I’m good enough to handle all this.”
During the difficult spell early last year, Sabalenka revealed that her coach Anton Dubrov had offered to resign but she had declined his request, and he was in tears after the match on Saturday.
With a major singles title to her name, more goals are on the horizon for Sabalenka, and she is eying the No 1 spot as well as adding to her Grand Slam haul.
She plans to return home to Miami after a fruitful Australian summer, and to celebrate by eating ‘good pizza’, ‘a lot of sweets’ and, maybe, drinking a ‘little bit of champagne’.
As for Rybakina, she becomes the first Kazakh tennis player to enter the Top 10 singles world rankings after her run to the Australian Open final on Saturday, making up somewhat for the points she missed out on in her Wimbledon triumph last summer.
“I don’t think tomorrow I’m going to feel different just because of the ranking now,” she told reporters about her rise to No 10 in the world from No 25 when the rankings are updated on Monday, while she shrugged off having to start her AO campaign on an outer court.
“For sure, it’s going to be different in the smaller tournaments I would say,” she added. “I’m going to be seeded. Maybe in some tournaments I’m not going to play in the first round.
“So of course there are some benefits out of this. But for sure I don’t really look at the numbers or rankings so much.”
Rybakina added that reaching a second major final so quickly after her first had eased some of the pressure.
“Yeah, for sure. Even I would say I’m trying to not think about expectations and everything,” Rybakina said. “I think, in the end, it’s just confidence to go forward, to keep on working.
“Now I have more confidence, even after this final. I just need to work hard, same as I did during pre-season and actually throughout the years, be healthy and for sure the results are going to come.”
The 23-year-old acknowledged that she was a part of something special after the 2 hours 28 minute final.
“If it’s going to be like this, it’s great. For sure, that’s the goal, to be in the second week of all the Grand Slams, to play finals,” Rybakina said. “It was a very powerful game from both of us … maybe this is, kind of, pushing the other players to be more aggressive.
“There is maybe [only a] few girls who plays like this,” Rybakina added of Sabalenka. “I just know that I have to serve well. It’s also pressure in the end.
“As soon as I have opportunity, take it. Today I had some opportunities. Didn’t take. The match didn’t go my way … I think quality of the match was good.”