It took 2 hours and 28 minutes of blistering tennis to resolve the issue of the Australian Open’s women’s singles final, and it was Aryna Sabalenka who held firm to capture her first Grand Slam title with a thrilling three-set win over Elena Rybakina, the reigning Wimbledon champion, and lift the silverware.
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. Aryna Sabalenka
The final between two of the game’s biggest strikers could well have gone either way, but the Belarusian displayed a steeliness that has hitherto has been missing from her powerful game, and she produced a stunning array of firepower, coupled with unnerving composure to defeat Rybakina, 4-6 6-3 6-4, on Rod Laver Arena.
“I’m still shaking and super nervous,” the 2023 AO champion said. “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.”
In one of the best women’s final seen in many a year, Sabalenka saw 3 match points come and go by the tightest of margins before she converted her 4th when the Russian-born Kazakh sent an errant forehand just long over the baseline.
The No 5 seed dropped down onto the court, lying on her back, as the tears began to flow, and later received a warm hug from Rybakina.
Sabalenka entered the final having not dropped a single set, but Rybakina took the opener, only for the Belarusian to bounce back in the second, paving the way for a dramatic decider.
She made the all-important breakthrough in the 7th game in the tightly-contested third set, and held her nerve to close out the match, becoming only the second player from her country to win a Grand Slam singles title after Victoria Azarenka.
Sabalenka’s impressive run at the Australian Open will see her pocket A$2,975,000 which is A$100,000 more than last year’s champion, Ash Barty, earned.
Rybakina’s run to the final saw her stun World No 1 Iga Swiatek in the 4th-round, then take out Jelena Ostapenko and Azarenka to reach her 2nd Grand Slam final, and her exploits in Melbourne will see her pocket A$1,625,000, which is A$50,000 more than what last year’s runner-up Danielle Collins.
Sabalenka fired 17 aces to Rybakina’s 9, and 51 winners to the Kazakh’s 31, while, she took 109 points overall, compared to the 103 won by the 22nd seed.
The Belarusian’s ace count was one shy of her career high, and the second most in a tour final going back to 2008.
While Rybakina co-led the women’s event with a fastest serve of 195 km/h, Sabalenka wasn’t far behind at 193km/h.
In the critical break of the 3rd set, with Rybakina serving at 3-all, Sabalenka started swinging harder, and while her average forehand speed had hovered around the 77 mph mark, she upped the ante to around 87 mph, which is on a par with the men’s finalists, Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who average in the low 80s.
Sabalenka’s serving issues a year ago have finally been put to bed and, despite opening with a double-fault, which she shrugged off with a half smile, it proved a potent weapon throughout.
There are still double-faults, though, but these are now aggressive rather than nervy, while her explosive returns paid dividends on Saturday.
With Rybakina serving at 4-3 in the opening, Sabalenka levelled with some deft returns, and finished it with a backhand pass, but when the chance to back it up came, she could not seize the opportunity.
Now missing her first delivery, Sabalenka began to overhit her second serve, and an untimely double-fault gave Rybakina a second, decisive, break, and she quickly served out the first set.
After winning each of her first 20 sets in the new year, Sabalenka had finally lost one, and although she produced 5 aces in the opening frame, it was the 5 double-faults that cost her, as Rybakina, meanwhile, matched her in aces and had zero double-faults.
The second, though, belonged to Sabalenka, as she tightened up her service game, and was noticeably more aggressive attacking Rybakina’s now manageable second serve, and it was an errant forehand from the Kazakh that gave her a break, and an irreversible 3-1 lead.
The tense 3rd set boiled over in the 7th game when Sabalenka, swinging relentlessly, fashioned her 3rd break point of game, and finished it with an overhead smash.
Sabalenka double-faulted on a first match point, missed a forehand wide on her second and, as Rybakina brought up a break point, the tension escalated, only for the Belarusian to finally find her first serve again.
She could finally celebrate on match point No 4 when Rybakina’s forehand flew long.
Sabalenka is the 58th different woman in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam title, and the last one to do it was Rybakina, at Wimbledon last year.
She received the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup from Billie Jean King, whom she thanked for everything she has done for women’s tennis.
“I want to say sorry for my English, because I’m still shaking,” Sabalenka said as she was presented with the trophy. “I’m super nervous.
“It’s such an inspiration to receive this trophy from you. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for our sport.”
Sabalenka then turned to Rybakina, saying: “You’re such a great player. Of course we are going to have many more battles, hopefully in the finals of a Grand Slam.”
Playing in her first major final, the 24-year-old was a revelation, having confronted and defeated her demons, she is now unshackled and at peace with herself.
On Monday, Sabalenka will match her career high when she moves up to No 2 in the rankings, 4,385 points behind Swiatek, while Rybakina, finally, will be making her Top 10 debut, having missed out on her points at Wimbledon.
Sabalenka has now won all 11 of her matches this season and dropped just the one set to Rybakina, against whom she has now prevailed in all 4 career meetings, all in 3 sets.
By the end of their latest encounter, Sabalenka had tallied 51 winners and 28 unforced errors, while the Wimbledon 2022 champion countered with 31 and 25.
“I know how hard you’ve worked for that,” Rybakina said to Sabalenka. “Hopefully we’re going to have many more battles.
“I wanted to say a big thank you for this atmosphere,” she added to the crowd. “It was amazing. I felt really good playing here. I had goosebumps.
“When everybody was cheering for us, and supporting me, it was unbelievable, and I’m looking forward to coming back next year.”
In the first set, Rybakina had won 75% of her second-serve points, but, in the next two, this had fallen to 44% and 29%, respectively, reflecting Sabalenka’s increasing confidence and dominance on the day.
Adding the AO title to her career tally, Sabalenka has now won trophies at each of the different levels on the WTA Tour – 250s, 500s, 1000s, and now her first major.