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Aryna Sabalenka captures first Grand Slam title, conquers Elena Rybakina at Australian Open
The No. 5 seed rallied from a set down to play phenomenal tennis in her first major final, knocking out the reigning Wimbledon champion in a power tennis affair.
Published Jan 28, 2023
WATCH: The moment Aryna Sabalenka became a Grand Slam champion.
Aryna Sabalenka has found joy at the Happy Slam.
The No. 5 seed struggled to serve at the Australian Open a year ago; 12 months later, she has hit the zenith of her young career with a maiden major victory, rallying from a set down cement a perfect start to the season and defeat Elena Rybakina, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
"This is the best day of my life right now," Sabalenka said in her post-match press conference.
On a path to self-improvement throughout the 2022 season, Sabalenka showed off all she had learned on the one of the biggest stages in tennis, treating the Aussie crowd to a phenomenal exchange of power tennis before ultimately burying the reigning Wimbledon champion beneath a barrage of winners—51 in total—after two hours and 28 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.
An emotional Sabalenka dedicated the victory to her team, led by coach Anton Dubrov.
"We've been through a lot of downs last year, we worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy," she said during the trophy ceremony. "It's more about you than about me. Thank you so much for everything you're doing for me."
I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just different Aryna, you know? Aryna Sabalenka on overcoming past Grand Slam disappointments
Both big-hitting women have played some of the best tennis of 2023 to each make their first final in Melbourne Park. Sabalenka carried momentum from an 11th career WTA title in Adelaide into a 10-match winning streak—all without dropping a set—and finally won a Grand Slam semifinal after losing her first three in three heartbreaking sets.
"I think it's even more enjoyable, I would say, after all those tough matches," she mused. "I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation, you know, for me.
"I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just different Aryna, you know?"
But where Sabalenka outstripped Rybakina in quantity, the Kazakh can arguably boast superior quality with wins over 2022 finalist Danielle Collins, world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, 2017 Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko, and two-time AO winner Victoria Azarenka to reach her second Grand Slam final in less than a year.
That experience showed early on as Rybakina engineered an early first break from 40-0 down, employing her clean ground game to tremendous effect as she edged within two games of the opening set.
Sabalenka did all she could to keep pace with a rival she’d beaten in all three previous encounters—albeit always in three sets—and played her best return game of the match to level proceedings at four games apiece.
A poor service game for Sabalenka followed and a pair of double faults sent the initiative back to the No. 22 seed, who took full advantage to hand the Belarusian her first lost set since the WTA Finals in November.
While Rybakina looked to mix things up in the second set with an audacious drop shot, Sabalenka continued pressing from the back of the court, digging out of two break points in the opening game and one more in the fifth to move ahead, 4-1 with a chance to level the final.
Two set points went begging as the embattled Rybakina was repeatedly under siege on serve, and though the 23-year-old pulled off a spectacular half-volley en route to the hold, Sabalenka would not be denied, forcing a deciding set with an ace.
A slate of holds to open the third came crashing down for Rybakina as Sabalenka applied incredible pressure, striking winners at will and putting away a mid-court overhead to secure the first break. Weathering some incredible return winners from the Kazakh, Sabalenka consolidated to find herself four points from her first Grand Slam title.
Rybakina gamely served to stay in the match, putting the pressure back on Sabalenka to put herself over the finish line. A tense finale saw the 24-year-old rely on her biomechanically-reworked serve, and a 17th ace brought her to championship point. It was then that one last demon reared its head as a now-rare double fault appeared.
"I was like, Well, it's going to be fun after the double-fault," Sabalenka joked.
"The last game, of course I was a little bit nervous. I was keep 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.'"
She soon recovered, saving break point with a service winner and making no mistake on her fourth match point to seal the epic contest in just under two and a half hours.