Aryna Sabalenka started the final with a double fault and ended on the ground sobbing. It was, in a way, the story of her previous 12 months. Last year, the Belarusian was the self-described “queen of double faults” – a tour-high 440 of them last season. She also operated at the behest of her own emotions, stripped of her agency when confronted with an opponent’s defiance.
She became a champion on Saturday because she bested both – and, in turn, Elena Rybakina. She brought herself to heel after losing the first set and after each of the 10 break points she engineered but did not win.
When Sabalenka had a first championship point and double-faulted she howled, then pushed back her shoulders and shimmied. Shook it off, reset. It took another three match points to finally get over the line.
The result was deserved. The match felt overwhelming in its potency, pickling the senses and destroying what we thought we knew about the leaders in women’s tennis. At the start of this Australian Open, the favourite was Iga Swiatek. The form guide had the world No 1 v the rest of the field. Who would challenge her? Jessica Pegula was certainly one, Ons Jabeur another.
There were other possibilities, but Sabalenka and Rybakina were low on the list. That it turned out to be that pairing made for a gripping show of mental and physical mastery, two players with similar skill sets but differing methods of execution.
Rybakina does not look like a power player. The ball does not seem to cop the full brunt of her body and her ball striking is pure in its absence of any other sound. There is no grunt or scream or audible struggle. Rybakina moves like a player who has plenty of time and space, and strikes as if casting a fishing rod. Even in the second set, 4-1 down with the pressure on her serve, she was calm, clear, and remained that way throughout the 10-minute game that went to deuce four times and featured three break points. Her reaction to that hard-fought hold was identical to the one after she took the next point with a forehand winner.
It was the same again when Rybakina lost the subsequent four points. Occasionally, after offering an expert tutorial on how to transform defence into attack, she allowed herself a small fist pump. What then, would have warranted a greater rush of emotion? Winning the title? When she won Wimbledon last year, that small fist pump was all that came.
Whatever internal monologue motivated her at Melbourne Park until the very last point will remain a mystery, but it carried as grace under pressure and has done throughout a campaign when she defeated three grand slam champions to reach the final. Against Sabalenka, as a compelling contrast to the lid threatening to bubble over at the other end.
Every one of Sabalenka’s shots is heard loud and clear, every small victory a major celebration and each error a deliberate effort to maintain control. During this tournament she revealed she stopped working with a psychologist. “I realised that nobody [other] than me will help,” she said a couple of days ago. “On the pre-season I spoke to my psychologist saying, ‘Listen, I feel like I have to deal with that by myself, because every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it’s not fixing my problem.’
“I just have to take this responsibility and I just have to deal with that. I’m not working with a psychologist anymore – I’m my psychologist.”
And Sabalenka was, all the way until the end, against a player as hard-wired to attack as she. Physicists have broken down the Serena Williams serve; they will soon be studying the same from both of these players. Rybakina’s first serve is a cannon that hit 195kmh in this match, even if it did fall away while Sabalenka pounced on her second and worked the angles to devastating effect to send down 51 winners.
As Sabalenka got to her feet she was greeted with a hug and a shy smile from Rybakina, then embarked on her own Pat Cash moment by climbing to her player’s box. Holding the trophy, she said her triumph was more about her team than it was her, to epic applause befitting an epic final.