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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, January 28, 2023

Aryna Sabalenka

A fierce Aryna Sabalenka subdued Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a brilliant Australian Open final to capture her maiden major title.

Photo credit: Getty

Banging a clenched fist off her thigh, Aryna Sabalenka spiked her spirit and slammed stress in the final dizzying game of a dramatic Australian Open final.

Striking with determined bite, the woman wearing the Tiger tattoo roared back from a set down, pounded pressure and pulled off the comeback of her career.

In a brilliant and sometime breathtaking final, a fierce Sabalenka subdued Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to capture her maiden major title with audacious shotmaking and unbreakable self belief.

"I think it's really the best match, I would say it was," said Sabalenka, who beat Rybakina for the fourth time in as many meetings. "She played an unbelievable tennis. I fought so hard to win this one.

"I think tennis was great. I'm really happy that it wasn't easy match. I really enjoyed this battle."

On her fourth championship point, Sabalenka realized her Grand Slam dream after enduring a horror-show serving stretch and personal pain.

Four years after the passing of her beloved father, Sergey, who introduced her to tennis after passing a local court when she was six years old, and less than a year after her serve was such a mess she was clanking double digit double faults and serving under handed, a stubborn Sabalenka made a stand and delivered the most dynamic tennis of her life in a two hour, 28-minute triumph of will and spirit.

Banned from Wimbledon last summer along with Russians and fellow Belarusians, Sabalenka stands as the first Grand Slam champion to win under a neutral flag.

Struggle makes her Slam breakthrough even sweeter.

"I think it's even more enjoyable, I would say, after all those tough matches," Sabalenka said. "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?"

The beaming Belarusian improved to 11-0 on the season winning her 12th career title in her first major final.

Courageous in closing, a smiling and giggling Sabalenka was charming as a maiden major champion.

"Sorry for my English because I'm still shaking and super nervous. Secondly, you [Billie Jean King] are such an inspiration to receive the trophy from you thank you for everything you've done for our sport," Sabalenka said. "Elena, you're such a great player of course we're going to have many more battles hopefully in the finals of Grand Slams."

In a triumph for herself and fans worldwide who have suffered shattering setbacks of their own, Sabalenka beat back demons of self doubt, slayed stress and out-served one of the game's most imposing servers.

In a fight to the finish, Sabalenka smacked 17 aces against 7 double faults, while Rybakina served with command clubbing nine aces against one double fault while denying 10 of 13 break points.

"I would like to congratulate Aryna with the title and with a great start to the season," Rybakina said. "Adelaide and here I know how hard you worked for that. So congratulations and good luck the rest of the season. Hopefully we're gonna have many more battles...

"Hopefully next year, I'm gonna have same result even better."

As pressure peaked in the final game, Sabalenka saw three championship points slip from her grip

On this night, nothing was stopping Sabalenka. 

Continuing to hammer away, Sabalenka was scorching groundstrokes over 80 mph throughought the final set.

On her fourth championship point, Sabalenka's resilience was rewarded. Sabalenka drew a final floated forehand then dropped to the court, gave herself time for a good cry and absorb it all.

The last game, yeah, 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. Yeah, there was a tough game. I'm super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions and win this one. The woman who was down in the double fault dumps for much of 2022 arose as the first Grand Slam champion  of 2023.

Despite defeat, Moscow-born Rybakina makes history as the first Kazakhstan woman to crack the Top 10. Rybakina knocked off three Grand Slam championse—world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka—en route to her second major final solidifying her status as a Grand Slam force for years to come.

"I think Aryna raise her level in the second set. She played really well, aggressive, a bit less mistakes," Rybakina told the media in Melbourne. "I should have been also more aggressive in some moments.

"Yeah, I had some chances, for sure, to turn it around. But, yeah, she played really well today. She was strong mentally, physically. Yeah, overall, as I said, it was a good two weeks for me."

Echoes of thumping strikes reverberated throughout Rod Laver Arena as two of tennis' premier power players took turns detonating points. Launching offensive fireworks, they combined for 82 winners over three sets.

Neither woman was willing to back off the baseline so the first strike was magnified. Points were won with ambitious drive rather than lost with skittish reticence.

Belting the ball with ambition, Sabalenka hit 51 winners against just 28 errors cracking drives even after errors and gulping deep breaths of air to calm herself when things got a bit crazy at the climax.

Playing her second Slam final in the last three majors, Rybakina showed stiff resolve of her own forcing Sabalenka to face pressure right up until the final point.

Ultimately, Sabalenka's superior serving, slightly quicker court coverage that enabled her to scrape back some low shots and her skill targeting Rybakina's weaker, and more predictable, forehand wing on pivotal points were key components in a tremendous title match. 

You'd have to go back to Naomi Osaka's three-set win over Petra Kvitova in the 2019 AO final for a title match that popped with such ballistic ball striking from start to finish. This was high octane hitting from two women with flame-thrower strokes who seldom met a shot they didn't believe they could torch.

before a packed Rod Laver Arena crowd that included Hall of Famers Billie Jean King and Evonne Goolagong sitting in the center box that starred seven of the Original Nine who formed the foundation for the WTA. Legacy champions had to like what they saw at the start.

Tennis Express

  Power players came out bruising the back wall on serve.  The 2021 AO doubles champion Sabalenka shook off a double fault with a two-ace opening game. Rybakina responded, ripping through a three-ace hold. The pair pounded seven aces in the first 12 points.

Though Sabalenka had surrendered serve just six times in six tournament wins, she squandered a 40-Love lead  Gladiator star Russell Crowe watched from the crowd as a zoning Rybakina zapped two more aces zooming to a 4-2 lead winning nine of 10 first-serve points.   

Twenty-five minutes into the match, Sabalenka shifted her return position slightly and started putting more returns back in play. Sabalenka fought off a body serve then boomed a backhand pass down the line breaking back to even after eight games.

The Wimbledon winner was getting the better of backhand exchanges earning double break point in the ninth game. The predatory posture of Rybakina crowding the baseline spooked the Belarusian's sightline provoking Sabalenka to go for more on serve. Instead, she spit up her second double fault of the game and fifth of the final, donating the break and a 5-4 lead to her opponent.

Hitting her forehand behind Sabalenka for triple set point, Rybakina pumped her favorite serve out wide wrapping up a one-set lead with a love hold.

It was a set of calm, confident and at times imposing tennis from the No. 22 seed.

Exuding easy, fluid firepower, Rybakina smacked five aces against no double faults and won 17 of 23 serve points in the 34-minute opener.

Contesting her 20th career final, Sabalenka carried a perfect 10-0 record sweeping all 20 sets she'd played in 2023 onto court. After some skittish serving that saw her hit five aces and five double faults and her inexplicable impulse to repeatedly play to Rybakina's stronger backhand wing, how would Sabalenka respond to losing her first set of the season?

Compounding her challenge, Rybakina is a confident front-runner and Sabalenka was a near futile 1-8 when losing the first set of a final compared to a 10-1 mark when winning the opening set of a title match.

Both ladies left the court after the first set. Sabalenka saved a pair of break points to open the second set with a stand.

Staring down her first break point of the second set, Rybakina whipped the wide ace to erase it. Spreading the court wider, driving the ball deeper and targeting her opponent's forehand with more frequency, Sabalenka broke for 3-1.

  The first five games of a high-quality second set all escalated to deuce.

When break-point stress came for Sabalenka, she beat it down with fury. 

A bold backhand strike down the line saved break point off a second serve then Sabalenka soared slamming a bounce-smash from behind the baseline then slashing her ninth ace to consolidate for 4-1.

Credit Rybakina for repelling a pair of break points in the sixth game. Sabalenka was striking cleanly, earning set points on Rybakina's serve in the eighth game. Rybakina saved both, including a sensational running backhand winner down the line to deny the second set point. That strong stand helped the Kazakh hold for 3-5.

Channeling power with poise, the woman wearing the Tiger tattoo on her left forearm showed a roaring second serve to seal the second set with a bang. Sabalenka slid successive aces down the T, including a second serve ace her 12th of the match, to force a final set after 90 minutes.

For the fourth time in the last six years, the AO women's final would be decided in a third set.

A rare Rybakina double fault followed by a Sabalenka forehand strike down the line gave the Belarusian the first break point of the last set. Rybakina saved it with some of her fastest serves of the night, navigating a hard-fought hold for 3-2 that had Rod Laver Arena fans roaring.

Serving superbly under pressure, Rybakina hit nine aces against one double fault and denying eight of 10 break-points to that point.

Targeting the forehand to elicit a mid-court ball, Sabalenka slammed a crosscourt forehand for break point in the seventh game. Rybakina went to the wide serve again to wipe it away. Rybakina saved another break point lacing a serve down the T. 

On this night, Sabalenka was unrelenting.

On her third break point of the game and fourth of the set, Sabalenka read the wide serve and belted a backhand return with such force it nearly knocked Rybakina to her knees in defense. Sabalenka snapped a smash to break for 4-3.

Slamming down her 16th ace, Sabalenka stretched her lead to 5-3.

Serving for her maiden major title, Sabalenka drew an errant forehand for 30-all. Drawing deep breaths, Sabalenka slashed her 17th ace down the T for championship point only to double fault deep.

A courageous Sabalenka bounced back, banging a bold forehand winner inside the sideline for a second championship point. Sabalenka narrowly missed a forehand to drop to deuce.

The Wimbledon winner caught the sideline with a forehand for break point only to see a gutsy Sabalenka throw down a serve winner wide. Rybakina netted a forehand giving the Belarusian a third championship point. Sabalenka failed to find a first serve and missed a backhand off her back foot long.

Undaunted, Sabalenka slid a forehand winner down the line for a fourth championship point.

On the seventh shot, Rybakina's forehand floated logn and Sabalenka crashed to the court and let the tears of triumph flow.

Embed from Getty Images

A magnificent match, memorable rallies, much mutual respect, a magical Melbourne night and a worthy maiden major champion.

If you're like me, it all left you buzzed and breathless and hoping we see these two champions collide again. 


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