MELBOURNE (AFP): An emotional Aryna Sabalenka battled back from a set down to beat Elena Rybakina and win the Australian Open on Saturday for her first Grand Slam title.
The hard-hitting Belarusian collapsed to the court in tears after winning 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 against the Wimbledon champion in a high-quality 2hr 28min arm-wrestle on Rod Laver Arena.
The 24-year-old Sabalenka wiped a tear from her right eye before getting a warm hug from Moscow-born Rybakina, who played a full part in an amazing match between to hard-hitters.
Sabalenka, the fifth seed, then ran to her player’s box to celebrate joyously with her team.
It was a fitting finale to two weeks of drama at Melbourne Park, highlighted by brutal groundstrokes, precision serving and wonderful rallies from two players at the top of their game.
Rybakina cruised through the first set in just 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 tremendous toe-to-toe battle.
At 3-3 Rybakina — who represents Kazakhstan– could not find enough first serves and though she saved two break points, a third was too much and Sabalenka had the finish line in sight.
An ace took her to 5-3 and Rybakina held to force Sabalenka to test her nerves and serve for the championship.
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 to edge past the big-serving Rybakina.
Sabalenka will now rise to second in the world, equalling her career high.
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 of Russian and Belarusian players there.