AFTER a number of close shaves reaching the final four in three of the WTA Tour majors, Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka took home her first Grand Slam title, defeating Elena Rybakina in three tight sets. The victory backed up an impressive year, where Sabalenka reached the WTA Tour Final but fell short of that crown. In last night’s decider, Sabalenka came back from a set down to defeat Rybakina 4-6 6-3 6-4 in two hours and 28 minutes.
It was a fitting contest for a Grand Slam final, with both notorious power players, with a big serve, and nail-biting winners. The reigning Wimbledon champion looked good early, breaking the Belarusian in the penultimate game after the world number five hit a couple of double faults. The 23-year-old held her nerve to serve to love, as Sabalenka’s range misfired with four consecutive errors in the last game of the first set.
Settling into the match, Sabalenka managed to keep herself in the Championship by breaking Rybakina with a second break point in the second set. Though the Kazakh could have broken back immediately in the fifth game, Sabalenka ripped a backhand winner to save break point, then took out the game with a forehand winner to move 4-1 up. From there, she maintained her own composure, this time smashing two aces in the final two points of the set to level the scores at a set apiece.
Both players found their grove heading into the decider, and the huge amount of winners and errors were on show, with neither talent leaving anything out on the court. Holding serve in the first half of the set, Sabalenka was doing it more comfortably, and then the danger seventh game came along. Saving a break point and then having a game point herself, Rybakina was unable to capitalise, and Sabalenka hit two winners and broke to go 4-3.
After the two combatants held serve the next two game, Sabalenka was serving for the match. She picked up her first Championship point at the two-hour and 21-minute mark with an ace, only to double fault on Championship point. Rybakina had a chance to get the match back on serve thanks to a forehand winner, but then skewed a backhand into the net off Sabalenka’s power.
The Belarusian picked up a second Championship point which went away after an unforced error, but on the third chance of asking, Sabalenka came good as Rybakina mis-hit a forehand long. As soon as it sailed beyond the baseline, the fifth seed crashed to the ground in a sea of emotions, but her younger opponent came over her side of the net to hug and congratulate her on the title, as Sabalenka was now a Grand Slam champion.
“I think it’s even more enjoyable, I would say, after all those tough matches,” Sabalenka said post-match. “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. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just different Aryna.”
Sabalenka smashed 17 aces to nine and hit a whopping 51 winners to 31, though only won the six more total points (109-103). In the post-match ceremony, Sabalenka received the trophy from legend Billie Jean King.
““I’m still shaking and super nervous,” Sabalenka 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.”
Rybakina conceded that Sabalenka is one of the few players that could out-hit her, and enjoyed the battle despite being disappointed with the defeat.
“I would say that not many girls can put me really under the pressure,” Rybakina told reporters. “Against her, it’s not easy because she has a great serve and she plays really aggressive. Her ball is coming very heavy. There is maybe few girls who plays like this.
“Today I had some opportunities. Didn’t take.”