MELBOURNE, Australia ( Associated Press) — One point away from winning her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka fouled. And then he committed another foul. He winced, screamed, and rolled around on his back across the court. He shrugged his shoulders and exhaled.
Obviously, it was not possible to win the Australian Open without a league match on Saturday. Sablenka knew deep down that this was going to happen. He also knew that all the efforts he put in to overcome his insecurities and those dreadful twin faults would eventually pay off.
Thus, after blowing the second match point with another right hand and missing the third again, Sabalenka did everything she could to stay calm, something that used to be difficult. She stayed until her fourth chance to end the match against Elena Rybkina – and this time, Sabalenka saw her right hand through with a hard shot. The championship belonged to Sabalenka as she defeated reigning Wimbledon champion Rybakina 4–6, 6–3, 6–4.
“The last game, of course, I was a little nervous. I used to tell myself, ‘Nobody told you it was going to be easy.’ You have to work for it ’till the last point'”, said the 24-year-old Belarusian, who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will move to world No. 2 on Monday.
The only set she has lost all season was Saturday’s opener against Rybakina, who ousted world number one Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.
Apparently, Sabalenka’s message at the post-match ceremony was directed to her coach, Anton Dubroy, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacey—calling them “the craziest team on tour, I might say.”
Sabalenka, playing in her first major final, admitted, “We went through a very low point last year, I would say.” “We work very hard and you deserve the trophy. It’s more about you than me.”
Well, of course it had a lot to do with it. Serves that produced 17 aces helped break a streak of seven double faults. Those hard shots and aggressive style helped her land 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina. Despite her go-all style, Sabalenka limited her unforced errors to 28. Another statistic: Sabalenka had 13 break points, converted three, including one at 4-3 in the third set that would have given her the lead.
“She played very well today,” admitted Rybalkina, who has lost four doubles to Sabalenka in three sets. “He was strong mentally, physically.”
His strongest point was also his biggest flaw: the serve. While being perfectly capable of hitting aces, he also has a double fault problem. Last year he led the tour in that category with nearly 400, and there were matches in which he scored more than 20.
At the urging of his team, he agreed to overhaul his service mechanics in August, which with a commitment to staying calm under pressure is now paying off.
Rybakina and Sabalenka exchanged strong serves as the seagulls cawed loudly over Rod Laver Arena. Rybakina’s fastest shot reached 120 mph, Sabalenka’s at 120 mph. He also traded groundstrokes, most of them untouchable, and turned up game-winner after game-winner.
Sabalenka admitted before the match that she expected to be nervous. This is understandable as this was the most important match of his career so far.
In the end, all that mattered was that Sabalenka controlled her nerves to get the job done. After the final point, she collapsed and lay on the court, holding her face in her hands for a moment as tears welled up in her eyes.