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Alberta

Aryna Sabalenka wins Australian Open for first Grand Slam singles title

MELBOURNE, Australia – The serves were big. that big Other recordings too. The points went by quickly. So Fast: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

And so, in the Australian Open women’s final between Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina, it was immediately clear that whoever managed to hold his serve on the line, read the returns and stand firm in the tightest moments would emerge victorious would.

It emerged that Sabalenka, a 24-year-old Belarusian, who won her first Grand Slam title by defeating Wimbledon champion Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 at Melbourne Park on Saturday night with 17 aces among their 51 total winners to overcome seven double faults.

It’s telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-game ceremony were directed at her coach Anton Dubrov and fitness trainer Jason Stacy – she described them as “the craziest team on tour, I would say”.

“We went through a lot of, I would say, lows last year,” said Sabalenka, who was in her first major final. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than me.”

Now 11-0 in 2023 with two titles already, she’s a strong player whose red-hot strength was also her most glaring deficit: her serve. She has long been capable of hammering aces but also had a well-known double fault problem, leading the Tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including more than 20 apiece in some games.

After much urging from her group, she finally agreed to an overhaul to her serve mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to staying calm in the moments of greatest pressure, is really paying off now.

The only set she lost all season was Saturday’s opener against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

But Sabalenka turned things around with an aggressive style and, more importantly, by breaking Rybakina three times, the last time to a 4-3 lead in the third set that was never surrendered.

Despite this, Sabalenka had to work for the championship while serving in the final game, making a double fault on her first match point and needing three more to end things.

When Rybakina sent a long forehand to crown the final after nearly 2 1/2 hours, Sabalenka flopped onto her back on the court and lay for a while, covering her face while her eyes filled with tears.

Sabalenka was 0-3 in the semifinals of the Grand Slam until she eliminated Magda Linette in Melbourne. Now Sabalenka has done it again and climbed to 2nd place in the rankings.

As seagulls shrieked loudly as they flew over Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded booming serves. Rybakina’s fastest was 195 km/h, Sabalenka’s 192 km/h. They traded Zoom groundstrokes from the baseline, often untouchable, resulting in win after win.

“Hopefully,” Rybakina said afterwards, “we’ll have a lot more fights.”

Ultimately, the most important statistic was this: Sabalenka collected 13 break points, Rybakina seven. Sabalenka’s trio of transformations was enough, and the constant pressure she was able to apply during Rybakina’s service had to take its toll.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games over the course of those two weeks, averaging once per game. Rybakina needed less than 10 minutes of action and every two games to set the standard and lead 2-1, aided by a return that arrived at 115 mph.

A few games later, Sabalenka retaliated and put down her racquet on one of Rybakina’s offers with the same speed. Then, as Sabalenka grooved a down-the-line backhand passing winner to catch her first break and equalize at 4-alls, she looked at Dubrov and Stacy in the stands, raised a fist and screamed.

In the next game, Sabalenka returned that right by making two double faults – including at the break point – and giving Rybakina a 5-4 lead. This time Sabalenka turned back to her entourage, but with a sigh and an eye roll and arms outstretched as if to say, “Can you believe it?”

Soon after, Rybakina stuck with owning this set.

Sabalenka changed momentum in the second set. Attacking aggressively, she broke to take a 3-1 lead, held for 4-1 and eventually served it up with an ace, appropriately – on a second serve, no less.

Sabalenka admitted in advance that she expected to be nervous. Which makes perfect sense: it was the most important match of her career so far.

And if that nervousness was evident very briefly early on – she made a double fault on the very first point of the evening – and seemed to resurface as the end neared, Sabalenka controlled it well enough to finish the job.

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