Aryna Sabalenka is first ‘neutral’ Grand Slam champion

Aryna Sabalenka is the first 'neutral' Grand Slam champion after winning the Australian Open

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Aryna Sabalenka is the first 'neutral' Grand Slam champion after winning the Australian Open

Aryna Sabalenka became the first ‘neutral’ Grand Slam champion as she defeated Elena Rybakina in the final of the Australian Open on Saturday.

In a a breathtaking display of power and unnerving composure, Sabalenka overcame Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to capture her first major.

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The Belarussian has been playing under the ‘neutral’ flag since last year due to the country’s support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

After squandering three match points Saturday, Sabalenka converted her fourth when a Rybakina forehand sailed long.

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“I think it’s even more enjoyable, I would say, after all those tough matches,” Sabalenka said.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation.

“I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just different Aryna.”

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She posted more aces (17 to 9), winners (51 to 31) and overall points (109 to 103) than the reigning Wimbledon champion.

Sabalenka’s ace count was one shy of her career high and the second most in a tour final going back to 2008.

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The match in Rod Laver Arena was, in effect, a microcosm of her career; Sabalenka confronted her double-fault demons — and ultimately defeated them.

“I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions and win this one.”

In the critical break of the third set — with Rybakina serving at 3-all — Sabalenka started swinging harder.

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Her average forehand speed coming in hovered around 77 mph, but in that game it was 87. By comparison, men’s finalists Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas average in the low 80s.

“I would say that not many girls can put me really under the pressure,” Rybakina told reporters.

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“Against her, it’s not easy because she has a great serve and she plays really aggressive.”

Sabalenka has now won all 11 of her matches in this new year and that opening set against the No.22-seeded Rybakina was the first one she’s dropped.

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