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Report: Sabalenka stands tall to win maiden major

  • Ravi Ubha

Women's singles final

Aryna Sabalenka rallied early in the second set, then didn't look back as she beat Elena Rybakina 4-6 6-3 6-4 in a huge-hitting thriller to earn a long-awaited first Grand Slam title at Australian Open 2023. 

Her response from losing the opener impressed further since Sabalenka hadn't dropped a set all season – and played in a maiden Grand Slam final. 

Saving a pair of break points with gutsy play to begin the second kickstarted the comeback. Then at the end, Sabalenka saved another break point, converting on her fourth match point. 

By the end of the encounter, Sabalenka tallied 51 winners and 28 unforced errors, while the Wimbledon 2022 champion countered with 31 and 25. 

Indeed, the AO 23 women's final won't soon be forgotten. Russell Crowe was one of those lucky enough to be at Rod Laver Arena to witness the gladiatorial duel of the highest quality. 

"I want to say sorry for my English because I'm still shaking," Sabalenka said as she was presented with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy by icon Billie Jean King.

"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 her attentions towards Rybakina, and echoed the thoughts of an enthralled audience at Rod Laver Arena, and the millions watching worldwide.

"You're such a great player," she said. 

"Of course we are going to have many more battles, hopefully in the finals of a Grand Slam."

The build-up

Something had to give on Saturday, given the duo's impressive path to the final. 

Rybakina became the first women's player since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to beat three Grand Slam winners in one edition of the Australian Open in Iga Swiatek, Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka. 

Rybakina scattered several seeds on her way to the AO final (Getty Images)

And before then, she eliminated last year's finalist, Danielle Collins. 

MORE: AO 2023 women's singles draw

Facing such opposition made her joint-leading tally of 80 per cent points won behind the first serve even more impressive. 

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. 

Sabalenka had hit more winners than unforced errors in all six of her matches, with her totals registering at 196 and 136, respectively.  

Sabalenka flew to her first Slam final without dropping a set (Getty Images)

Those numbers indicate Sabalenka achieved her goal of attempting to be calmer on court. The extended troughs have disappeared, replaced by mere temporary swoons. 

Hitting 56 double faults last year at Melbourne Park in four matches, her figure entering the final – in six matches – stood at 22. 

Story of the match

A double fault from Sabalenka into the net opened proceedings on a humid evening with temperatures in the low 20s. 

However, Sabalenka replied with an ace and finished with two in the game. 

Anything you can do … Rybakina thumped three in the next game. 

Few, then, would have predicted what was to follow. From 40-0, Sabalenka proceeded to drop serve. A Rybakina forehand pass helped the Kazakh. 

Sabalenka pulled to 3-4 with a hold from 15-30 – defending with her backhand slice on a 14-shot rally along the way – and levelled at 4-4 as her returns matched Rybakina's first serves. 

Sabalenka had all the momentum, but two double faults long on the ad-side contributed to a break immediately back. 

Was the occasion getting to her? Perhaps. But also perhaps was the pressure applied by Rybakina's potent returns.

How would Sabalenka respond after losing that first set? 

She was up against it straight away, 15-40, as the finale seemed to be getting away from her. Sabalenka produced the goods, though, crushing a body serve and deep, gutsy forehand on successive points. Timely. 

Things got even better for her as Sabalenka broke for 3-1. 

Keen to avoid dropping serve again immediately after a break, she ripped a backhand down the line to fend off a break chance. A huge roar followed. 

How the match turned. 

Rybakina was now hanging on, forced to avert three break points at 1-4 – two with aces – and two set points at 2-5.

Another twist? Not in the short term, as Sabalenka struck back-to-back aces – the second on a second serve – to seal the set. They were two of her 21 winners in the second. 

Rybakina's clutch serving on break points surfaced again at 2-2 in the decider's first break point.

Sabalenka kept knocking on the door, however. And at 3-3, broke through it, but not before Rybakina produced first-serve magic on two more break points. On the third, though, Sabalenka took advantage of a second serve. 

Working the point and getting the better of it now in exchanges, a forehand winner against a stranded opponent made it 4-3. 

Was it straightforward from then? Given the stakes, the answer not surprisingly was no. 

Sabalenka double-faulted on a first match point and missed a forehand wide on a second. Rybakina brought up a break point as the tension escalated – only for Sabalenka to finally find that first serve. 

But she could finally celebrate on match point No.4 when Rybakina's forehand flew long. 

She dropped to the court and wept, her racquet by her side, before the pair exchanged a hug. 

Key stats

Sabalenka's ability to get more traction on Rybakina's second serves proved key. 

MORE: Rybakina v Sabalenka match statistics

In the first set, Rybakina won 75 per cent of her second-serve points. In the next two, it fell to 44 and 29, respectively. 

With the victory, Sabalenka improved to 4-0 against Rybakina, all of the wins coming in three sets. 

What this means for Sabalenka 

No one can say this hasn't been coming for Sabalenka. Her Grand Slam crown means she has now won titles at each of the different levels in the top flight – 250s, 500s, 1000s and now a major. 

Sabalenka came through on the biggest stage of all (Getty Images)

Her ability to win on different surfaces makes her a threat at each of the majors as she bids to add more in the future. 

But for now, time to bask in the glory of Saturday. 

Sabalenka thanked her team, led by coach Anton Dubrov, who responded with heart signs with their hands.

"We've been through a lot of downs last year. We worked so hard. You guys deserve this trophy," she said.

"It's more about you than it is about me. Thank you so much for everything you are doing for me. I love you guys."

What's next for Rybakina?

Rybakina has now made the final in two of her last three Grand Slams, which figures to be a huge confidence booster in the future.  

Rybakina will surely get more chances for major silverware (Getty Images)

Her big breakthrough came on hard courts in 2020 before the pandemic severely curtailed the season. But let's not forget that her first Grand Slam quarterfinal came on clay – where she beat Serena Williams. 

She's an all-surface threat, too.

"I wanted to say a big thank you for this atmosphere," said Rybakina, who will officially enter the top 10 despite the loss.

"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."