Big stages no longer terrify Aryna Sabalenka.
Sabalenka, a formidable 24-year-old from Belarus who has a history of faltering under the strain of late-round Grand Slam tennis, rallied from behind to defeat Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the Australian Open women’s singles final on Saturday.
To round out a triumphant tennis season in Australia, Sabalenka outperformed Rybakina in a showdown of two of the game’s greatest hitters by being a little bit more brave and a few ticks more clinical. It was Sabalenka’s first Grand Slam victory in a difficult career that had seen her experience the type of mistake-filled, crucial-moment meltdowns from which some athletes almost never fully recover.
Instead, the match served as a microcosm of Sabalenka’s career, with a rocky beginning punctuated by untimely double faults, a steadying midmatch rebound, and a final-set exhibition of raw power and accuracy to which her opponent was unable to respond.
And it all came to pass after Sabalenka decided to act contrarianly last year in a time when athletes work their minds just as hard as their bodies. Sabalenka sacked her sports psychologist after determining that she would have to deal with the ghosts of all those defeats on her own.
Rybakina’s forehand on the tense last point was sent long. Sabalenka was on her back on the blue court in an instant, sobbing with ecstasy.
She would later remark, “Right now is just the happiest day of my life.
A few minutes later, holding the championship trophy, Sabalenka turned to her coaches and thanked them for supporting her over the emotional journey to her maiden Grand Slam victory.
Not at all, of course, especially on a night when she had to defeat a rival who had already established herself on a similar platform.
Rybakina, a native of Russia who acquired citizenship in Kazakhstan five years ago in exchange for aid, aimed to build on her Wimbledon championship run and establish herself as the top danger in women’s tennis.
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Rybakina said that she ought to have been more assertive once it was finished. She had improved both mentally and physically.
Instead, Sabalenka proved she had the fortitude to survive the type of high-risk, high-reward tennis match that had looked likely from the start of a competition where the playing field was favorable for the largest, flattest hitters.
More than two weeks ago, when players first started arriving in Melbourne, they claimed that the heat, humidity, and court preparation had made it difficult for the balls to spin, giving the advantage to players who hammer their first serves and rip at nearly every rally ball as though they get extra credit for velocity.
In case either Rybakina or Sabalenka tried to act like this was just another match, the silver champion’s trophy was gleaming on a pedestal in the corner of the court while they competed.
Rybakina had 45 aces going into the finals, which was the most in the field. With 29, Sabalenka came in third. They ranked first and second in winning points off of opponents’ serves, and both of them reached peak serve speeds of more than 120 mph.
This was hardly subtle, clever tennis, and for Rybakina it was very different from her Wimbledon title match in July, where she faced Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, one of the game’s most inventive players.
Additionally, it was different psychologically, and not just because she was acting in a way in Australia that was different from what her opponent was doing.
Following her maiden Grand Slam women’s singles victory, Sabalenka, on the left, embraces Elena Rybakina.
Rybakina, who was raised in Russia but became a citizen of Kazakhstan when that nation agreed to pay for her tennis instruction, debated her nationality for the better part of two weeks during Wimbledon. As she stampeded to the title, she was questioned over her country’s invasion of Ukraine. Wimbledon has disallowed players from Russia and Belarus from competing since her family still resides in those countries.
Sabalenka was forced to sit out since she is one of the few athletes who can equal Rybakina’s power and often surpass it.
However, Sabalenka’s power is distinct from Rybakina’s. Both players are six feet tall, but Rybakina’s long arms make her look like a human trebuchet, flinging shots in silence and giving no hint of the turmoil stirring inside, while Sabalenka swings a tennis racket like a lumberjack swings an ax, screaming with effort on every stroke, every bit of struggle and emotion visible in her eyes.
The match turned into a test of whether style of high-octane tennis could withstand the strain of a final set for one of the biggest trophies in the sport when Sabalenka calmed in and tied the score. Rybakina had a valuable advantage in experience as the defending Wimbledon champion facing a first-time Grand Slam finalist, but Sabalenka had all the momentum and the balls were launching off her strings with a pop and zip that Rybakina couldn’t duplicate.
The scoreboard indicated that they were swapping service games through the first six games, but Sabalenka was in complete control, and Rybakina had to keep coming up with massive serves or little escape routes to remain even.
Sabalenka clutched the trophy after beating Rybakina despite being down a set.
In the seventh game, Rybakina was unable to continue serving. Sabalenka forced her opponent to scramble for strokes on her third attempt to gain the critical break of serve, then sealed the victory with an overhead shot from the middle of the court. Sabalenka raised her fist, took a few deep breaths and mouthfuls of water during the changeover, and then marched back onto the court to pound her way to the championship with two games remaining.
She was one game away from claiming the championship after an ace into the service box, which would have been hers had she managed to keep her balance.
The fact that Sabalenka was able to do so was due to a change in how she perceived herself as a tennis player. She said, “I started valuing myself more.” “I began to realize that I am where I am because I put in the effort and am a decent player. I am competent to manage anything.
Sabalenka talked about firing her sports psychologist on Thursday after making her maiden Grand Slam final after four tries. She came to the conclusion that she was the only person who could figure out how to get over the mental challenges that had previously condemned her.
Every time I hope someone will solve my situation, it never does,” she remarked. “I just have to accept this obligation and cope with that. I’m no longer consulting with a psychologist. My psychologist is me.
At 5-4 in the match, Sabalenka briefly reverted to her former self as she attempted to serve it out. Having defeated Rybakina with an ace, she double-failed to give Rybakina the opportunity to win the match.
Then, on Sabalenka’s fourth match point, Rybakina lost her composure and mishit the forehand, causing Sabalenka to fall flat on her back.
Game over. Demons were cast out. And a new member of the elite club in the sport.