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Yukon Territories

Sabalenka beats Rybakina for Australian Open women’s title

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Aryna Sabalenka won her first Grand Slam title by defeating Elena Rybakina 4-6 6-3 6-4 in Saturday’s Australian Open women’s final.

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Aryna Sabalenka won her first Grand Slam title by defeating Elena Rybakina 4-6 6-3 6-4 in Saturday’s Australian Open women’s final.

The 24-year-old Belarusian Sabalenka was in her first major final.

She improved to 11-0 in 2023 and the only set she has lost all season was Saturday’s opener against Wimbledon champion Rybakina.

But Sabalenka turned things around with an aggressive style that resulted in 51 winners, 20 more than her opponent. She used 17 aces to overcome seven double faults. And she managed to break the powerful Rybakina three times, most recently with a 4-3 lead in the decider that she never gave up.

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 is a strong player whose greatest strength was also her most glaring flaw: 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 team, she finally agreed to an overhaul of her serve mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to staying calm in the moments of greatest pressure, is really paying off now.

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.

Ultimately, the most important statistic was this: Sabalenka collected 13 break points, Rybakina seven. And even though Sabalenka converted just a trio of them, it was enough and the constant pressure she applied during Rybakina’s service games 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 pass winner to catch her first break and equalize at 4-all, she looked at her coach and fitness instructor 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.


AP Tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press

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