Aryna Sabalenka tamed her nerves to blast her way to a maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Kazakh 22nd seed Elena Rybakina on Saturday in a thrilling final featuring two power-hitters in the women’s game.
Sabalenka’s 11th straight win of the year will propel the Belarusian fifth seed back to her career-high ranking of #2 — behind Poland’s Iga Swiatek — as she reaps the rewards of an improved playing mindset in the New Year.
Success has followed a period of introspection and change for the 24-year-old, who often appeared to let her emotions halt her progress on the grandest stage with three previous semi-final defeats at the majors.
She dropped her sports psychologist in pre-season and also worked with a biomechanics trainer to improve her fiery serve, which tended to fail her in big moments in the past.
“It is even more enjoyable after all those tough matches,” Sabalenka told reporters. “I feel right now that I needed those tough losses to understand myself a 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 a different Aryna.”
The results were evident before the year’s first Grand Slam as she won the Adelaide International 1 title.
With Russian and Belarusian players competing as individuals without national affiliation in Melbourne due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sabalenka becomes the first neutral athlete to win a major. But she played down the significance of the change.
“I think everyone still knows that I’m Belarusian player. That’s it,” she told reporters flatly.
‘Nobody tells you it’s going to be easy’
After wrapping up her first Grand Slam earlier, she dropped to the floor in delight, then walked to Rybakina’s side of the court to hug her before embracing her emotional entourage in the players’ box. Sabalenka’s coach Anton Dubrov shed tears of joy.
Rybakina, who triumphed at Wimbledon last year, came into the final high on confidence as the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to beat three Grand Slam winners along the way after toppling Swiatek, Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka.
“The last game, of course I was a little bit nervous. I kept telling myself ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy, you just have to work for it till the last point,'” she added.
“I’m super happy I was able to handle all those emotions and win this one.”
Rybakina acknowledged how hard her opponent had worked for her first major title.
“Hopefully we’re going to have many more battles,” she added. “I’m looking forward to coming back next year.. It was an amazing two weeks for me and hopefully I’m going to have the same results and even better.”
Later in the evening, the Australian wild card pairing of Jason Kubler and Rinky Hijikata beat Hugo Nys and Jan Zielinski 6-4 7-6(4) to lift the men’s doubles title.