Aryna Sabalenka wept tears of relief and joy after breaking through for her elusive maiden grand slam title with a tension-filled three-set Australian Open final triumph over Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina.
Fifth-seeded Sabalenka battled back from a set down to defeat Rybakina 4-6 6-3 6-4 at Melbourne Park to finally shed her tag as the best female player without a major.
Sabalenka’s watershed win completes a glorious unbeaten summer in which the 24-year-old also claimed the Adelaide International title and dropped only one set in 11 matches to vault herself back to No.2 in the world rankings.
Ash Barty was fittingly back at Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night to return the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup before the Belarusian held her nerve in a gripping final game to deny Rybakina a second slam in seven months.
Sabalenka has the distinction of being the last player to topple Barty in a final, beating Australia’s former world No.1 in Madrid in 2019 before the 26-year-old’s shock retirement – 12 more titles and three grand slam crowns later – last March.
Barty was happy for Sabalenka to take centre stage as she finally delivered on her undeniable talent.
But it was not straightforward as Rybakina saved three match points in an epic final game before Sabalenka saluted and slumped to the court in relief and perhaps also disbelief.
“I will need a few days to realised what just happened. I’m speechless,” Sabalenka said.
“It was super emotional, I was super happy that I was able to handle all of the emotions in the last game.”
Her success completes one of the great transformations in sport after Sabalenka, gripped by serving yips, departed Melbourne last year following 56 soul-destroying double-faults in just four matches.
With a tour-topping 428 doubles for 2022, Sabalenka desperately turned to a psychologist – and the results have been stunning.
The once-fragile, volatile unfulfilled talent has not lost since falling to Caroline Garcia in last year’s season-ending championship final in Texas and out-aced Rybakina, the Open’s ace leader, 17 to nine in the final.
“I lost three grand slam semi-finals and it was a really tough time. It was really needed from me to understand what I needed to change and improve,” Sabalenka said.
“I’m super happy to break this wall.
“Thanks to my team, the craziest team on tour. We went through a lot of lows last year but we worked so hard. You deserve this trophy more than me.”
Contesting her long-awaited first major final, Sabalenka’s nerves showed early as she dropped the first set with five dreaded double-faults.
But she refused to yield, quickly striking back with a break in the fourth game of the second set, a lead the fifth seed then refused to relinquish.
Locked at one set apiece, Sabalenka snared the decisive break at 3-3 in the decider and held serve twice more, the last time amid unbearable tension in her box, to seal victory on her fourth match point after an enthralling two-hour, 28-minute contest.
After taking out world No.1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round, then Jelena Ostapenko in the quarter-finals and dual Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka in the semis, Rybakina was the first woman since Jennifer Capriati 22 years ago to beat three major champions at Melbourne Park.
Alas, the emerging star fell a set short in her gallant quest to emulate Barty in claiming the Australian Open title the year after winning Wimbledon.
Instead the 23-year-old will have to settle for a consolation prize of a rankings rise into the world’s top 10 for the first time on Monday.
“Elena, you’re such a great player.” Sabalenka said.
“I know we’re going to have many more battles, hopefully in the finals of grand slams.”