Aryna Sabalenka: The ‘nobody’ who just became the newest Australian Open champion
Aryna Sabalenka had been to a Grand Slam semi-final three times. She had $12 million dollars as career earnings. And yet, in her opinion, she was a nobody.
Melbourne: Aryna Sabalenka had 11 WTA titles coming into the Australian Open. She had been as high as second best player in the world. She had been to a Grand Slam semi-final three times. She had $12 million dollars as career earnings. And yet, in her opinion, she was a nobody.
“I always had this weird feeling that when people would come to me and ask for signature, I would be like, ‘Why are you asking for signature? I’m nobody. I’m a player. I don’t have a Grand Slam and all this stuff.’”
Your #AO2023 women’s singles champion, @SabalenkaA 🙌@wwos • @espn • @eurosport • @wowowtennis • #AusOpen pic.twitter.com/5ggS5E7JTp
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 28, 2023
Even as she worked towards erasing those doubts, the 25-year-old got a massive shot in the arm with the 2023 Australian Open title after beating Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in two hours and 28 minutes of enthralling tennis.
A year ago, the Belarussian had served 56 double faults in her four matches at the Australian Open. All those matches went the distance and in three of them, she dropped the opening set. She recovered to win but it was a jittery stuff all the way through. The run was eventually halted by Kai Kanepi in a third set tiebreak that ended 9-7. Oof.
Fast forward to 2023. She won the title in Adelaide without dropping a set. Come Melbourne, she kept that streak going to book herself a place in the final – her first Grand Slam championship match. The double fault tally had dropped to ‘just’ 22 from six matches.
Congratulations to Aryna Sabalenka on her first Grand Slam title!
It was a thrilling match and both Sabalenka and Rybakina played so well.
Honored to present Aryna with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup. 🏆#AusOpen pic.twitter.com/l8WCXsmcfW
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) January 28, 2023
With Wimbledon champion Rybakina across the net, she won the coin toss and opted to serve. First point, she went up and served a double fault. Uh oh. Is this going to go horribly wrong once again?
Next point: Boom, Ace. 176 kmph. Two points later she banged another ace, this one clocked at 189 kmph. Well, maybe not.
As the first set went on, Rybakina did no wrong and the small margins remained in her favour. She served big, got plenty of cheap points, and bagged six of eight points on her second serve. Sabalenka, meanwhile, had five double faults and took just four of 12 second serve points.
If the first set was about quick games and lack of rallies, second was far from it. The first set needed 53 points while the second racked up 26 points more – equivalent of six more games. All but one game went to 30-30 or more.
The Belarussian started to attack more, be more aggressive and punched more winners. “I think Aryna raised her level in the second set. She played really well, aggressive, a bit less mistakes. I should have been also more aggressive in some moments,” said Rybakina later.
How about a round of applause for one superb Grand Slam final 👏#AusOpen • #AO2023 pic.twitter.com/jQyoVcwCTr
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 28, 2023
“Yeah, I had some chances, for sure, to turn it around. But, yeah, she played really well today. She was strong mentally, physically,” she said of her opponent who accumulated 51 winners and 28 unforced errors.
Serving for the match, having taken an all-important break in the seventh game, Sabalenka erred with a double fault on match point. “Well, it’s going to be fun,” she told herself. Slowly and gradually, two more match points came and went, with a break point in between, and Sabalenka stayed in it. But was she about to buckle?
“Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy, you just have to work for it, work for it till the last point,” she kept telling herself. And that last point came as a Rybakina shot landed long and Sabalenka went down in a heap near the baseline on Rod Laver Arena.
She had just allayed all the fears of the coaching team and her own. She had just made her signature worth a lot more – that of a Grand Slam champion. Aryna Sabalenka – the newest name to be inscribed on the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
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