Belarusian Sabalenka crowned first 'neutral' Grand Slam champion

Belarusian Sabalenka crowned first 'neutral' Grand Slam champion

Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka celebrates with the trophy after defeating Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina in the women's singles final of the Australian Open. — AFP
Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka celebrates with the trophy after defeating Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina in the women's singles final of the Australian Open. — AFP

By Reuters

Published: Sat 28 Jan 2023, 8:02 PM

Last updated: Sat 28 Jan 2023, 8:57 PM

With daring, resolve and a thunderous forehand, Aryna Sabalenka rose above geopolitical tumult to become the first player to claim a Grand Slam title as a neutral at the Australian Open.

The big-hitting Belarusian overhauled Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina 4-6 6-3 6-4 in the final at Rod Laver Arena on Saturday while barred from representing the eastern European nation.

Russian and Belarusian players are effectively "stateless" on the ATP and WTA tours, competing as individuals without national affiliation due to Russia's conflict with Ukraine.

Had Rybakina not switched allegiance to Kazakhstan in 2018, the Russia-born player would also have competed as a neutral.

Perhaps for the first time ever at Rod Laver Arena, the championship match was played without fans waving the national flag of the winner in the terraces.

Deemed a disruption by organisers, fans were banned from bringing Russian and Belarusian flags to Melbourne Park on the second day of the tournament after a complaint from the Ukraine embassy in Australia.

Sabalenka will not have "Belarus" next to her name on the winner's trophy, the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.

They may have seemed mere details as the 24-year-old joyously celebrated with her team in the players' box.

But her mood darkened slightly when asked whether being a neutral player had taken something away from her triumph.

"I think everyone still knows that I'm Belarusian player. That's it," she told reporters flatly.

Sabalenka and other Belarusian and Russian players were banned from Wimbledon last year, a polarising decision that triggered heavy fines from the men's ATP and women's WTA tours and also saw the Grand Slam's ranking points taken away.

With the conflict in Ukraine raging on, Wimbledon will soon need to decide whether the player ban should remain in place.

Asked whether missing Wimbledon made her Australian Open win sweeter, Sabalenka was non-committal.

"I mean, missing the Wimbledon was really tough for me. It was a tough moment for me," she said.

"But I mean, I played the US Open after. It's not about Wimbledon right now. It's just about the hard work I've done."

The Belarus tennis federation was quick to extend congratulations to the country's second tennis player to win a Grand Slam, following on from twice Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who was knocked out in the semifinals.

Sabalenka thought people in Belarus would be proud of her but she had no plans to celebrate with them in the short term.

"I think I will go back to Miami. I live there right now," she said.

The finale was a captivating match of brutal groundstrokes, precision serving and wonderful rallies from two players at the top of their game.

It was a fitting end to two weeks of drama and shocks at Melbourne Park.

"I need a few more days to realise what just happened," Sabalenka told Australia's Channel Nine.

"Oh my god, I'm speechless, to be honest."

Rybakina cruised through the first set in 34 minutes but Sabalenka scrapped her way back in a 57-minute second set to take it to a nervy decider.

It was then a case of which of the big servers would blink first in a toe-to-toe battle.

She was up to the challenge, but needed four nerve-shredding match points after a display where she hit an astonishing 51 winners and 17 aces. She remains unbeaten in 2023.

"I just kept telling myself that nobody said this is going to be easy. She's going to fight, this is the final, just work for it," Sabalenka said afterwards, describing how she got through those four match points.

"Take a deep breath and just work.

"I was just super happy that I was able to handle all the emotions in the last game, it was super tough for me," added Sabalenka, who had reached three Grand Slam semi-finals before this year but never gone farther.

Rybakina will have the consolation of breaking into the top 10 for the first time, after reaching her second Grand Slam final in seven months.

She was awarded no ranking points for her Wimbledon win because of the ban on Russian and Belarusian players there.

"I don't think tomorrow I'm going to feel different just because of the ranking now," said a disappointed Rybakina, who is projected to rise to 10th from her current 25th when the new rankings are published on Monday.


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