crowned at the Australian Open, a first double title for Aryna Sabalenka

Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka kisses the Australian Open trophy after her victory in the final on Saturday January 28 against Kazakh Elena Rybakina.

Aryna Sabalenka is not the first player from her country to win a Grand Slam singles title – she is preceded by Victoria Azarenka – but she will go down in history as the first to win a Grand Slam under a neutral banner, in the context of the war in Ukraine. For her baptism in the final of a major in singles, the 24-year-old Belarusian overthrew, on Saturday January 28, the Kazakh Elena Rybakina (4-6, 6-3, 6-4) without having the right to her anthem or to his flag during the trophy presentation ceremony at Rod Laver Arena.

A victory as a reward for daring rather than experience in this poster of hitters perched at roughly the same height (1.84 meters for Rybakina; 1.82 meters for Sabalenka), but with large segments radically different: slender for the Kazakh (born in Moscow), powerful for the Belarusian. Two archetypes of modern tennis, in short.

Elena Rybakina, however, had the favor of the forecasts, weighted with her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in July 2022. A victory under the nose and beard of the members of the venerable All England Club, who had decided during this edition like no other to ban Russian and Belarusian players, in response to the invasion of Ukraine at the end of February 2022 by Russia, with the help of Minsk. The winner of the day, Aryna Sabalenka, had therefore been deprived of playing the prestigious tournament on grass.

Read also: Elena Rybakina, a coronation that crumples Wimbledon

Forehand Power

On Saturday, the more experienced of the two players first took control of the final. The Kazakh locked the Belarusian in the backhand diagonal and made the difference on her face-off, her master weapon, where her opponent was permanently on a wire. After having conceded for the first time its commitment at the start of the set, the 5e The World Cup picked up the score at 4-4 before falling back into its traps in the next game: it dropped its service on a fourth double fault, abandoning the first set to Rybakina (6-4).

The outcome of the match was already taking shape, but the tension suddenly changed sides in the second set. The service of the Kazakh went wrong, Sabalenka took the opportunity to fly away 4-1, even missing in the next game three double break points synonymous with K.-O. Was it her record against the Belarusian – who led before the final 3-0 in their confrontations – that caught up with her? Rybakina lost his first ball and control of the match, when his opponent redoubled his application and aggressiveness, evacuating his aggressiveness and his determination under the decibels. The Belarusian missed two set points at 5-2. But barely a few minutes later, she was logically rewarded for her audacity and came back to one set everywhere (6-3).

Sabalenka, whose forehand power is unmatched on the women’s circuit since the retirement of Serena Williams, went on the offensive early in the 3e set. Launched into a demolition business, the Belarusian distributed the game from the baseline, combining heaviness and depth of balls. Unlike a far too passive Rybakina: with each hard service game, the 23-year-old saved three break points at 3-3 before finally giving up her engagement as soon as her first ball dropped her. Sabalenka, she did not tremble when confirming her break at 5-3. His opponent did try to delay the ax, dismissing three match points, but the fourth was the one for Sabalenka, who stretched out full length on the Rod Laver Arena.

“I worked so hard”

Already winner at the Australian Open in 2021 in doubles (associated with the Belgian Elise Mertens), Sabalenka was certainly a novice in these latitudes in singles, but her presence in the final was not a surprise as her progress in recent months n escaped no one. Finalist of the Masters at the end of the year – won by the French Caroline Garcia -, winner in Adelaide at the beginning of January, the Belarusian had not lost the slightest set of the season until the final.

Read the picture: Caroline Garcia wins the WTA Masters, a coronation with the taste of revenge

Exactly twelve months ago, in this same setting, the 5e World Cup congratulated itself at the end of its third round for not having “only ten double faults”. On Saturday, she committed seven, including one on her very first serve of the match and another on a match point. But she preferred to smile each time rather than let herself be overcome by frustration.

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Often betrayed by her nerves in big matches while she has been at the top of world tennis for five years, Sabalenka managed to tame her emotions throughout this Australian Open: “I try to shout less after my faults. I try to contain myself, stay calm, immediately think about the next point, she said this week. (…) I especially try to have fewer negative thoughts. »

The 24-year-old has long believed her lapses on her face-offs were mental. The evil was so deep that last spring, she had even lost her gesture of service. She has since decided to do without her psychologist, tried a new service during the summer and took advantage of the off-season to do a technical “reset”. “I worked so hard…she let go after her semi-final. I tried everything, changed a lot of things, until I started working with a biomechanic. Since then, it has been getting better and better. »

Before the final, she had posted 89% of service games won since the start of the tournament. Saturday, she returned a copy deserving the congratulations of the jury (17 aces and 51 winning moves).

On Monday, in the standings, she will officially become the runner-up to world number 1, Poland’s Iga Swiatek, swept away by Rybakina in the round of 16 in Melbourne.


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