Australian Open: Aryna Sabalenka becomes game’s first neutral grand-slam champion

The situation Wimbledon organisers had guarded against by banning players from Belarus and Russia last year has come to pass in Melbourne. Aryna Sabalenka, the 24-year-old from Belarus, is tennis’s first neutral grand-slam singles champion after coming out on top in a thrilling Australian Open final.

The best match of the women’s singles draw was saved for last as Sabalenka prevailed 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 against Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina in two hours and 28 minutes. It was an astonishing showcase of power, with 82 winners between the pair, 51 of them hit by the eventual champion.

Sabalenka, who is not allowed to have any reference to Belarus beside her name, will now rise to a career-high world ranking of No 2 on Monday. She was so overcome by emotion in the immediate aftermath of her triumph that she fell on to her back on the court and broke down in tears.

“I need a few more days to realise what just happened,” Sabalenka said. “It was super emotional at the end. I was just happy that I was able to handle all the emotions in the last game. It was a tough match.”

The All England Club will now watch the reaction to Sabalenka’s victory with interest. They are considering bringing the championships into line with every other grand-slam tournament by allowing players from Belarus and Russia to compete as neutrals this year, but will be mindful of how such a sporting achievement could be used to benefit either regime while the invasion of Ukraine is ongoing.

The absence of Belarus will be permanent on the Australian Open trophy. After the match her name was engraved onto the silverware but not her country, unlike previous champions.

“I think everyone still knows I’m a Belarusian player,” Sabalenka said. “That’s it. Missing Wimbledon was really tough for me. But I played the US Open after. It’s not about Wimbledon right now. It’s just about the hard work I’ve done.”

Sabalenka was regarded as the pre-match favourite with victories in all three of their previous meetings, including the last-16 of Wimbledon in 2021. But Rybakina, 23, had the benefit of experience in such a big occasion, having already won a grand-slam title at the All England Club last year.

Nerves were evident for Sabalenka when she hit a double fault in the first point of the match, to which she gave a wry smile, but she quickly followed it up with an ace. The serve was dominant for both players in the early stages with a total of five aces in the first two games.

Rybakina was first to break for a 2-1 lead when Sabalenka put a forehand wide. The contrast in the emotional state of both was striking at this stage, with Rybakina appearing calm and composed while Sabalenka struggled to hide her frustration.

Sabalenka managed to level the set at 4-4 but was immediately broken again after hitting a fifth double fault. The deep Rybakina return was forcing Sabalenka to go for more power and depth on her second serves and she looked distinctly uncomfortable as a result.

There was still a glimmer of hope for Sabalenka after Rybakina had served out the set. On the six previous occasions she had lost the first set at a grand slam, she had ended the match as the winner. Lo and behold, Sabalenka began to work her way back into the match.

Using her heavy groundstrokes she took control of the rallies to move 4-1 ahead in the second set. Also now far steadier on her serve, she hit back-to-back aces to level the match at one set all.

The deciding set was the first the Rod Laver Arena crowd had seen in either singles draw since Monday after a succession of underwhelming matches. The quality of the tennis at this stage was also a treat as both players raised the level of ball-striking to produce some blistering exchanges.

Sabalenka had the edge, repeatedly putting pressure on the Rybakina serve. After three break points passed by, she finally converted a fourth with an overhead smash to lead 4-3. During this game the speedometer had clocked an average Sabalenka forehand speed of 87mph, and 83mph on the backhand.

An ace out wide helped Sabalenka to consolidate the break to move to within one game of victory at 5-3. Forced to serve out the match at 5-4, she came through a tight and dramatic game, saving a break point with a 119mph serve before converting her fourth championship point as a Rybakina forehand floated long.

“I was just telling myself in the last game that nobody said it was going to be easy and that it was OK, she is going to fight for it,” Sabalenka said. “I just said, ‘Take deep breaths and work for it. Just go through the ball, swing it and it will go in. Hit it like you can.’ And it worked.”

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