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Aryna Sabalenka stays calm and battles back to win the Australian Open

Aryna Sabalenka defeated Elena Rybakina to win the Australian Open. (Martin Keep/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

All 82 winners under pressure that seared back and forth across the Australian Open women’s final Saturday eventually seemed to identify just two winners: the players. With their power, their precision and their boldness, they had produced an emblem for the era, a banging, blasting festival of the unafraid.

The winner among winners turned out to be Aryna Sabalenka, the 24-year-old Belarusian ranked No. 5 who has overcome some of the goblins and vultures that often circle tennis-playing heads. It seemed to fit that it took her four championship points in one winding final game to snare her first major title. It fit that when Elena Rybakina’s last dauntless forehand landed just long to end matters at 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, Sabalenka fell to the court, stared upward and sobbed.

It also fit that Rybakina, the reigning Wimbledon champion, walked across the court to greet Sabalenka and join her in a hug of respect, the two having produced something of a rare quality. “Hopefully we’ll have more matches in the finals of Grand Slams,” Sabalenka told Rybakina on the court during the trophy ceremony.

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Anyone who likes their sports excellent and fearless would have to share that hope. Fans of meekness might not.

“She played unbelievable tennis,” the winner, Sabalenka, said of the other winner in the champion’s news conference in Melbourne, “and I fought so hard to win this one, and I think the tennis was great. I’m really happy that it wasn’t an easy match. I really enjoyed this battle.” She said it “seems like — not seems, it’s like the best day of my life right now.”

“Now,” the other winner told reporters after technically losing, “I have more confidence, of course, after even this final.”

Numbers helped explain that. Thirty-eight percent of the 213 points in their first final together ended on winners, with 51 for Sabalenka and 31 for Rybakina, as tennis balls roared into corners at oft-beautiful angles. It looked very much the player who will become No. 2 in the next rankings (Sabalenka) vs. the player who will vault from No. 25 to No. 10 (Rybakina) but will remain under-ranked, her Wimbledon title gaining no points because the WTA Tour nixed them in response to Wimbledon’s ban of Russians and Belarusians.

It all began Saturday night in Melbourne as the first Australian Open final of two players under 25 since January 2012. It began after a weird dearth of split-set matches at this tournament, with straight sets enough to decide six of eight fourth-round matches, all four quarterfinals and both semifinals. And it began with Rybakina, a Russian who has played for Kazakhstan since 2018, bidding to elbow toward the top of the sport right up near No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who won the 2022 French Open and 2022 U.S. Open sandwiched around Rybakina’s Wimbledon, making her departure in the Australian Open fourth round a feat — the feat of Rybakina by 6-4, 6-4.

Rybakina, that old veteran of 23 and one previous Grand Slam final, quickly restated her worthiness. With her stoicism and crisp power, she coolly broke Sabalenka from love-40 down in the third game and even more coolly shrugged off getting broken for 4-4 by breaking right back as the eventual champion dished out some rare examples of slop. Rybakina seemed to read the serves and the occasion a tad better, and she jumped ahead to lend an ultimate test to Sabalenka’s newfound calm. She held at love at 5-4 for the first set — the first set Sabalenka had yielded among 21 this year — then tacked on more peril for Sabalenka by forging ahead 15-40 while returning serve in the first game of the second set.

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She wouldn’t get that break because of various Sabalenka blasts and because she had wandered into Sabalenka’s unusual little wheelhouse. In 2022 Grand Slam matches in which Sabalenka lost the first set, she had gone 6-0: three wins at the Australian (where she reached the fourth round), one at the French (where she reached the third round) and two at the U.S. (where she reached the semifinals and lost to Swiatek after winning the first set). For several years she has seemed a marvel who lacked only that calm; now she has developed the calm to become a marvel.

Even her three previous bummer trips to Grand Slam semifinals translated into something of value.

“I think it’s more enjoyable, I would say, after all those tough matches,” she said. “And I really feel it now that I really needed those tough losses [all three in three sets] to kind of understand myself a little bit better.”

Her service side stayed almost airtight with 17 aces and only one more break point faced until the harrowing final game. Her returns rose by a notch in caliber so she could break Rybakina after one deuce in the fourth game of the second set and after three deuces in the seventh game of the third. The match filled with the deuces of long, tight games — a 57-minute second set, a 57-minute third — its soundtrack the shrieks and grunts of Sabalenka against Rybakina’s noiseless power.

“I would say that not many players can put me under the pressure” that Sabalenka causes, Rybakina told reporters, soon adding, “Her ball is coming very heavy.”

Finally, Sabalenka faced a monster of a closing game, serving with her mighty serve, one of the two mighty serves present in the final. She double-faulted with two long serves on her first championship point at 40-30, and with that she revisited an old horror that used to plague her game until she spent much of past year in the hard act of repair. She answered that with a sharp cross-court forehand winner, showing her steel. “I was like, ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy,’ ” she told reporters. “You just have to work for it and work for it to the end.”

She pulled a forehand wide on the second championship opportunity, then faced a break point she erased with a service winner to the corner. On a third championship point, 2 hours 26 minutes into the match, she shoved a backhand just long, but while she made the occasional gesture acknowledging her struggle — a slight smile, even — she won the battle with herself. In her career, she said, “I started to respect myself more” to “having this understanding that I’m a good player.”

So she put away a sitter earned from her serve to gain a fourth championship point, and she hung right in a tricky closing six-shot exchange with balls hitting lines — until one last ball did not and she had prevailed over herself and one hell of an opponent.