Big Risks and Big Rewards for Aryna Sabalenka at the Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Australia — It was the sort of outcome that Wimbledon had been intent on avoiding at the All England Club: a Belarusian champion holding up the silverware in triumph with the war in Ukraine still a brutal reality.

But Wimbledon, where Belarusian and Russian players were banned in 2022 and may be again this year, has remained an outlier in professional tennis and increasingly in international sports.

Aryna Sabalenka, born and raised to pound tennis balls into submission in Minsk, Belarus, was free to play and win the Australian Open women’s singles title as a neutral competitor, even if there was scant chance her victory would be greeted neutrally at home or by her country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, whom she knows personally.

“I think everyone still knows I’m a Belarusian player, and that’s it,” Sabalenka said on Saturday night at a news conference, a glass of champagne in hand and the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup glittering beside her.

She put her name on the trophy and secured her first Grand Slam women’s singles title with a brilliant and bold performance. Anything less would not have sufficed against Elena Rybakina in their gripping, corner-to-corner final that might have been better suited to a ring as the two six-footers exchanged big blows for two hours and 28 minutes.

Mash tennis. Crush tennis. Rip tennis. Smack tennis. Take your pick, but something onomatopoeic seemed appropriate with all that power on display, and what separated this match from many a tennis slugfest was the consistent depth and quality of the punching.

High risk was rewarded repeatedly on Saturday as both finalists took big swings, aiming close to the lines and often hitting them.

The 2023 Australian Open

The year’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.

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Rybakina finished with 31 winners to 25 unforced errors. Sabalenka, in what looked like the finest performance of her career, finished with 51 winners to 28 unforced errors: She cranked up the quality after an erratic opening set and won the lion’s share of the rallies, or maybe the tiger’s share, considering she had the animal tattooed on her left forearm at age 18 to remind her to fight for every point.

“My parents didn’t know about this tattoo,” she told the Tennis Channel. “When they saw it the first time, my dad was laughing, I don’t know why, but my mom didn’t talk to me for one week.”

Five years later, the tattoo remains but much has changed: Her father, Sergey, died in 2019 at age 43, leaving Sabalenka committed to achieving the dream he had for her to become No. 1.

She has already fulfilled his wish in doubles, reaching the top spot in 2021. When the new singles rankings are released on Monday, she will be back at No. 2, behind Iga Swiatek, who still has a large lead based on her terrific 2022 season but who has lost to Sabalenka and Rybakina in the last two significant tournaments.

Sabalenka, with the tattoo of a tiger on her left forearm that she got at 18 to remind her to fight for every point.Credit…Fazry Ismail/EPA, via Shutterstock

Sabalenka defeated her in November in the semifinals of the WTA Finals, the season-ending tour championships in Fort Worth. Rybakina overpowered Swiatek in the fourth round in Melbourne on her way to the final.

Swiatek, the Polish star who looked set to become a dominant No. 1, is instead struggling to adjust to her new status and facing increased competition at the top, although she remains, until proven otherwise, the best women’s clay-court player.

But on other surfaces, Sabalenka and Rybakina, last year’s surprise Wimbledon champion, clearly pose a formidable threat with their aggressive returns, relatively flat groundstrokes and penetrating serves.

There were rare variations on Saturday: a drop-shot winner from Rybakina, a few defensive lobs and the occasional off-speed backhand. But for the most part, it was strength versus strength; straight-line power against straight-line power. The spectacle was frequently breathtaking, but you did not have to hold your breath for more than a few seconds: The longest rally was 13 strokes, and the average rally length was just 3.28 strokes.

It was tennis reminiscent of the big-serving, high-velocity duels between Serena and Venus Williams. It was also a significant departure from last year’s Australian Open, where Ashleigh Barty ended a 44-year singles drought for the host country by winning the title, putting her court craft and crisply sliced one-handed backhand to work before shocking the tennis world (and Australia) by retiring in March at age 25.

But Barty, now married to Garry Kissick and expecting their first child, has hardly avoided the Australian Open, making numerous public appearances this year and walking onto Rod Laver Arena before Saturday’s final with the Akhurst Memorial Cup in hand.

“I can honestly look myself in the mirror and say I gave everything to tennis, but it gave me back so much more in return,” she said in a recent interview. “And all that really starts from the people I was surrounded with. So much of my success is our success. It genuinely is.”

Sabalenka could relate to that on Saturday as she shared a post-victory moment with her team and then watched from afar as her normally stoic coach, Anton Dubrov, put a white towel to his face and sobbed in the player box.

Sabalenka said she had never seen Dubrov cry and explained that last season, in February, as she struggled with the yips on her second serve and her confidence and reached a point where she could not even openly discuss the problem, Dubrov offered his resignation.

“There were moments last year when he said, ‘I think I’m done, and I think I cannot give you something else, and you have to find someone else,’” Sabalenka said in an interview with Nine Network. “And I said: ‘No, you’re not right. It’s not about you. We just have to work through these tough moments, and we’ll come back stronger.’”

Her performance on Saturday was incontrovertible proof that they had succeeded, with the help of a biomechanical expert but also Sabalenka’s own resilience. She is 11-0 this year and though she double-faulted seven times in the final, including on her first match point, she also repeatedly shrugged off any jitters (and the palpable concern of the big crowd) and came up with aces or service winners on subsequent serves.

In the end, she hit 17 aces to Rybakina’s 9.

“For sure, it’s not easy mentally,” Rybakina said of Sabalenka. “She didn’t have a great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well. For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

Rybakina has paid her dues, too. Born and raised in Russia, she switched allegiance to Kazakhstan in exchange for financial support in 2018. And though she was allowed to play at Wimbledon last year, her victory, with her strong Russian connections, was not the outcome the tournament was seeking either when it imposed its ban under pressure from the British government.

Some Ukrainian players continue to oppose Russians and Belarusians being allowed to compete at all on tour, even as neutrals. The debate is about to intensify as the International Olympic Committee begins to push for Russians and Belarusians to be allowed to compete as independent athletes at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris — a move the Ukrainian government strongly opposes and could respond to by withdrawing its own athletes.

But Sabalenka, after sitting out Wimbledon, where she reached the semifinals in 2021, is now a Grand Slam singles champion in Australia and was feted with no apparent ambivalence by the Australian Open tournament director, Craig Tiley, and was awarded her trophy in Rod Laver Arena by Billie Jean King

Sabalenka’s news conference was full of questions intended not to confront her directly but rather to probe the issue. However you present her on the scoreboard, it was a Belarus victory.

“Missing the Wimbledon was really tough for me,” she said. “It was a tough moment for me. But I played the U.S. Open after. It’s not about Wimbledon right now. It’s just about the hard work I’ve done.”

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