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Aryna Sabalenka battles back to beat Elena Rybakina in Australian Open final

Aryna Sabalenka battles back to beat Elena Rybakina in Australian Open final
Aryna Sabalenka claimed her first grand slam title, ยฉ Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

By Eleanor Crooks, PA Tennis Correspondent, Melbourne

Aryna Sabalenka fought back from a set down to defeat Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and claim her first grand slam title in a terrific Australian Open final.

In a battle of two of the biggest hitters in the women’s game, Belarusian Sabalenka seized the initiative after dropping the opening set to win 4-6 6-3 6-4 and thus becomes the first singles player to win a slam under a neutral flag.

The 24-year-old could not bring herself to watch Rybakina claim the title at the All England Club, so disappointed was she at being banned from competing because of Belarus’ role in supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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But Sabalenka, fuelled by a remodelled serve and a commitment to keeping her emotions in check, has been a woman on a mission all fortnight.

One sloppy service game cost her the opening set but Sabalenka did not lose belief or take a step back and Rybakina could not resist the powerful hitting of her opponent.

The final game was full of tension but Sabalenka made it across the line on her fourth opportunity before falling to the court in delight.

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Remarkably, this was the seventh successive grand slam match she has won having lost the opening set.

There were a disappointing number of empty seats on Laver for the match, a far cry from 12 months ago, when Ashleigh Barty gave Australia a long-awaited home champion.

One of the biggest cheers of the night was for the 26-year-old as she carried the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup onto court prior to the start of the match.

First blood in the battle to succeed her went to Rybakina, who broke Sabalenka from 40-0 in the third game.

The Belarusian breached the semi-final barrier at the fourth time of asking and came into the match having not dropped a set in 10 matches this year, and did not panic at the early deficit, getting a grasp of her opponent’s big serve in the eighth game and breaking back.

The aces had been flowing from both women’s rackets, six came in the first 11 points, but Sabalenka, well aware that safe second serves would be gobbled up, also threw in five double faults in the opening set, two in a poor ninth game that handed the initiative right back to Rybakina.

The 23-year-old gratefully accepted the gift and served out the set to love.

Sabalenka might have let the match get away from her, especially when Rybakina piled on the pressure early in the second but, with her serve coming to her rescue when she needed it, the fifth seed stayed strong.

Sabalenka was the more aggressive, outhitting Rybakina comprehensively in terms of winners, and she got her reward with a break for 3-1.

Now it was the Wimbledon champion having to dig deep on serve, saving three break points in the sixth game and then two set points at 5-2.

But Sabalenka proved up to the task of serving it out, clinching the set with a second serve ace to send the contest to a decider.

The momentum now was with the 24-year-old, and she elevated her level again in the early stages of the decider, pushing ever closer to the lines but rarely beyond them in what was surely the best performance of her life.

Rybakina withstood a break point in a long game at 2-2 but her resistance cracked two games later as Sabalenka moved to within sight of victory.

The final moment did not come easily, with Sabalenka double-faulting on her first match point and then missing a forehand on her second as a baby cried in the stands.

But she pulled out her fastest serve of the match to save a break point and finally clinched a 4-6 6-3 6-4 victory on her fourth chance after two hours and 28 minutes.

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