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Australian Open 2023 – Conclusion

The first Grand Slam of 2023 has come to an end but not without it’s fair share of upsets and surprises.

From weather delays, late-night battles stretching well into the early morning and plenty of upsets, the AO has seen it all.

The women’s final was played on Saturday, 28 January, and Aryna Sabalenka was crowned Australian Open champion after an epic three-set victory over Elena Rybakina on Rod Laver Arena winning 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Aryna Sabalenka became the first neutral Grand Slam champion when she lifted the Daphne Akhurst Trophy in Melbourne.

As a Belarusian, she was not allowed a flag by her name, nor any other mention of her nationality.

And yet, as she pointed out guilelessly in her post-match press conference, ”everyone still knows that I’m a Belarusian player.” So much for tennis’s feeble attempt to mask the realities of the Ukrainian invasion.

But still, while the political dimension of this final must be acknowledged, we should also commend it as a magnificent sporting spectacle. As predicted by everyone in Melbourne before the match, it was a contest of short points.

Sabalenka and her opponent – the reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina – possess the two biggest serves in the women’s game, and they are no less powerful in their groundstrokes.

The match, therefore, delivered an average rally length of just over three shots.

But what shots they were!

Sabalenca, in particular, had the fans gasping with her bewitching ability to play at full throttle while still applying enough topspin to keep the ball in court.

The fans also smiled at her girlish giggle, which punctuated every single sentence during her charming acceptance speech. ”You deserve this trophy more than me.” Aryna Sabalenka salutes her team after winning the AO title.

Sabalenka had to push herself to the limit after dropping the first set – a setback that stemmed from two badly-timed double faults in the ninth game.

At the time, we thought she might be slipping back into bad habits because her Australian campaign of 2022 was derailed by a nasty case of the ”yips”  –  nerves.

Then, she served 96 double faults in 6 matches and even resorted to serving underarm.

A question mark around Sabalenka has been her mental stability in tight moments, but this match showed how much she has matured from the emotional character who used to spontaneously combust under pressure.

The first set of this final was the first she has dropped all season, in her 11th match.

She then left the court for a bathroom break and came back with a new steeliness in her eye. Her enormous, broad-shouldered hitting now took on a new dimension.

Professional tennis involves a constant trade-off between speed through the air and top-spin to bring the ball down into court. Most women  –  including Rybakina  –  prefer to expend most of their energy on the former, which means that they have to aim very low over the net-tape.

But Sabalenka is such a beast of an athlete that she can apply both types of force to the ball at once. Crucially, this gives her  greater margin for error.

Her statistics were astonishing:- 51 winners to just 28 unforced errors. And yet, coming down the home straight, she still wasn’t guaranteed a victory.

Rybakina was defending her own 121 mph serve superbly under the heaviest of pressure, staving off 10 of 13 break points in all. These were daunting moments for the 24-year-old Sabalenka, who had played three major semi-finals before this tournament and lost the lot!

Rybakina’s defiance meant that she had to serve her first Grand Slam title at 5-4 in the decider, and she looked understandably shaky as she double-faulted (for the seventh time of the evening) on her first match point.

Two more match points came and went in a nine-minute concluding game. But then, finally, Rybakina sent a forehand long. Her groundstrokes have both elegance and purity, but their flat trajectory is just that little bit less robust than Sabalenka’s dive-bombing style.

As Rybakina put it afterwards, ”Her ball is coming very heavy (with top-spin). Yeah, there is maybe few girls who plays like this.” Sabalenka lay on the ground in the approved celebration that seems to be common to all Grand Slam champions these days.

What was unusual was the extent to which her emotions came pouring out, as she lay and sobbed for a good 20 seconds, her stomach heaving with emotion. Only then did she finally drag herself to her feet for a warm embrace with Rybakina.

The crowd expressed their joy  –  and rightly so, for this was arguably the  best Grand Slam final since Caroline Wozniacki had finally landed her own first major here five years ago.

”Is the best day of my life right now,” said Sabalenka afterwards. ”She played unbelievable tennis. I’m really happy that it wasn’t easy match. I really enjoyed this battle.” So did everyone else.

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