Aryna Sabalenka is no longer afraid of big stages.
Overcoming a history of buckling under the pressure of late-round Grand Slam tennis, Sabalenka, the powerful 24-year-old from Belarus, came from behind to beat Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the women’s singles final of the Australian Open on Saturday.
In a matchup of two of the biggest hitters in the sport, Sabalenka was a little more fearless and a few clicks more clinical than Rybakina in the crucial moments to cap off a dominant summer of tennis in Australia. It was Sabalenka’s first Grand Slam title in a rocky career that has included the kind of error-ridden, big-moment meltdowns from which some players almost never recover.
Instead, the match proved a microcosm of Sabalenka’s career — a shaky start, filled with ill-timed double faults followed by a steadying midmatch recovery before a final-set display of raw power and precision that her opponent could not answer.
And it all went down after Sabalenka decided last year to make a contrarian move in an era when athletes train their minds as hard as they train their bodies. Sabalenka fired her sports psychologist, deciding that if she was going to exorcise the demons of all those losses, she was going to have to do it on her own.
On the final, anxious point, Rybakina sent a forehand long. In an instant, Sabalenka was on her back on the blue court, crying tears of joy — and relief.
“It’s just the best day of my life right now,” she would say later.
Holding the championship trophy on a stage a few minutes later, Sabalenka turned to her coaches and thanked them for sticking with her on an emotional ride to this first Grand Slam title.
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.
“We’ve been through a lot of downs,” she said. “It’s more about you than it is about me.”
Hardly, of course, especially on a night when she had to overcome an opponent who had proven herself on a stage like this before.
Rybakina, a native Russian who became a citizen of Kazakhstan five years ago in exchange for financial support, was aiming to back up her championship run at Wimbledon and announce herself as the major threat in women’s tennis.
“I should have been more aggressive,” Rybakina said when it was over. “She was stronger mentally, physically.”
Instead it was Sabalenka who showed the mettle needed to survive the kind of high-risk, high-reward tennis battle that had seemed inevitable from the first days of a tournament in which the conditions were ideal for the biggest, flattest hitters.
When players first began arriving in Melbourne more than two weeks ago, they said the combination of heat, humidity and court preparation had made the balls difficult to spin, giving the edge to players who hammer their first serves and rips at nearly every rally ball as though they get extra credit for velocity.
That suited Rybakina and Sabalenka just fine, as they played with the silver champion’s trophy sparkling on a pedestal in the corner of the court, in case either of them tried to pretend this was just another match.
Entering the finals, Rybakina led the field with in aces with 45. Sabalenka was third with 29. They were first and second in hitting winners off their opponents’ serve, and at the top of the charts in peak serve speed, with both cracking 120 miles per hour.
Subtle, deft, tennis this was not, and for Rybakina it was so different from her championship match at Wimbledon in July, when she played Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, one of the most creative players in the game.
It was also different psychologically, too, and not only because she was doing something in Australia that she had already done before and that her opponent had not.
Rybakina, a Russian through her childhood who became a citizen of Kazakhstan when the country promised to pay for her tennis training, spent the better part of two weeks during Wimbledon talking about whether she was actually Kazakh or Russian. She was also asked to answer for her native country’s invasion of Ukraine as she stampeded to the title. Her family still lives in Russia, and Wimbledon had prohibited players from Russia and Belarus from participating.
That sidelined Sabalenka, one of the few players who can match, and often top, Rybakina thump for thump.
Sabalenka’s power is different than Rybakina’s, though. Both players are six feet tall, but Sabalenka swings a tennis racket like a lumberjack wields an ax, screaming with exertion on every stroke, every bit of struggle and emotion visible in her eyes, while Rybakina’s long arms make her seem like a human trebuchet, slinging shots in silence and giving no hint of the turmoil stirring inside.
As Sabalenka settled in and knotted the score, the match became a test of which brand of high-octane tennis could sustain the pressure of a final set for one of the biggest championships in the sport. As the reigning Wimbledon champion playing against a first-time Grand Slam finalist, Rybakina held a priceless edge in experience, but Sabalenka had all of the momentum, and the balls were jumping off her strings with a pop and a zip that Rybakina couldn’t match.
The scoreboard showed them trading service games through the first six games, but Sabalenka was on cruise control and Rybakina had to keep finding big serves or tiny escape hatches to stay even.
Serving in the seventh game Rybakina could no longer do it. On her third chance to get the crucial break of serve, Sabalenka sent her opponent scrambling after shots, then put away the game with an overhead shot from the middle of the court. Two games from the championship and in the driver’s seat, Sabalenka pumped her fist, took a few deep breaths and mouthfuls of water on the changeover, then strutted back onto the court to hammer her way to the title.
An ace into the corner of the service box put her one game from cradling the trophy, which would be hers if she could just avoid wobbling.
That Sabalenka was able to do so was the result of shifting how she thought about herself as a tennis player. “I started respecting myself more,” she said. “I started to understand that I am here because I worked so hard and I am a good player. I’m good enough to handle everything.”
On Thursday, after finally making her first Grand Slam final on her fourth try, Sabalenka talked about having fired her sports psychologist. She decided that she was the only one who could find a way to overcome the mental struggles that doomed her in the past.
“Every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it’s not fixing my problem,” she said. “I just have to take this responsibility, and I just have to deal with that. I’m not working with a psychologist any more. I’m my psychologist.”
For one moment the old Sabalenka reappeared as she tried to serve out the match at 5-4. She aced Rybakina to get to her first match point, then double-faulted to let Rybakina back in.
Then, on Sabalenka’s fourth match point, Rybakina buckled, sending that forehand long, and an overwhelmed Sabalenka flat onto her back.
Match over. Demons exorcised. And a new member of the sport’s most revered club.