You knew it was never going to be easy. Aryna Sabalenka had spent much of the past 12 months ironing out the many kinks in her second serve, but if anything was going to bring back the yips, it was the possibility of winning her first major title. She tried for a huge second serve on championship point #1 and missed it, bringing back memories of Goran Ivanišević trying to serve out the 2001 Wimbledon Championships. On Sabalenka’s second and third championship points, she made second serves but lost the points. Finally, on the fourth attempt, she was pulled wide by Elena Rybakina’s angled crosscourt forehand but got it back, and Rybakina missed her next shot. Sabalenka sank to the ground in exhausted elation.
Having touched on the end of the match, I just need to say it: Damn, this was a good final, and it required a heroic effort from Sabalenka to win. Rybakina looked unflappable — hell, she looked near-invincible — in the opening set. Her serve was spitting aces left and right, and the one time Sabalenka managed to break her in the first set, Rybakina promptly broke back. When Rybakina had served out the opener and went up 15-40 on Sabalenka’s first service game in the second set, I thought a repeat of the semifinal against Victoria Azarenka was on the cards. Rybakina is dangerous enough at the beginning of a match, but with a lead she can become untouchable.
Instead, Sabalenka launched a sustained assault from the back of the court, hitting her groundstrokes with so much furious pace that even Rybakina buckled under the siege. Sabalenka routinely got her opponent’s huge serves into play, and once she did, got to work overwhelming Rybakina in the baseline exchanges. If Rybakina has a slight weakness in her game it’s her defensive forehand — she often goes for running winners but rarely makes them, and Sabalenka drew those errors time and again. Rybakina, the Wimbledon champion last year, had been pushed earlier in the tournament, but this was the first time I saw her truly on her heels. She fought gamely in the second set, saving three break points at 1-4 and two more at 2-5. But Sabalenka had a vise grip on the match and refused to let it go, serving out the set confidently.
Besides her issues with the second serve, the main reason Sabalenka was yet to win a major until last night was the riskiness baked into her style of play. She hits with enough power to overwhelm anyone, but there’s a very fine line between precision and wild inaccuracy when you hit the ball as hard as Sabalenka does. And yet she finished the night, the most pressured of her tennis career, with an astonishing 51 winners and 28 unforced errors. Harnessing so much power on such a big stage — she was hitting her forehand harder than the men, regularly going beyond 85 mph — is as impressive as it gets.
While Rybakina did well to hold her first three service games in the decider, Sabalenka was inevitable. Her break at 3-all had been a long time coming. When she stepped to the line to serve for the title, she had played so well for so long that I tried to imagine Rybakina breaking her and couldn’t.
But this is tennis, a sport that forces viewers to imagine the unimaginable. Though a player can win four points in under a minute, winning the final game can also be an impassable chasm. Rybakina went up 15-30, then had break point after Sabalenka’s first couple championship points passed her by. I watched the final from Kia Arena, where they were showing the main event from a couple big screens. There weren’t many others there — maybe fifty — and we had no reason to cheer, being far enough away from Rod Laver Arena that the players would never hear our shouts. Still, what I will remember from the final few minutes of the match is the way we gasped when Sabalenka smashed a big serve and put our heads in our hands when she failed to take a championship point. I think she had won over most of the tennis world before she even put the match to bed.
It’s hard to imagine a better start to the year for the women’s game. Rybakina had an opportunity to win a second major and receive the deserved amount of acclaim for the first time — her Wimbledon title was practically swept under the rug — but I daresay the run to the final alone gained her the rightful recognition. Her run was impossible to ignore; she went through 2022 finalist Danielle Collins, world number one Iga Świątek, power player extraordinaire Jelena Ostapenko, and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka. And despite playing a superpowered Sabalenka, she was three games away from the title. The loss will sting, but this was not a choke, nor was it a gigantic missed opportunity. For me, this was a rare final that generated only positive emotions — I’m thrilled for Sabalenka and proud of Rybakina, and I think both will win more majors in the future.
Świątek is still the world number one, and while a portion of fans will surely say Sabalenka is the best player in the world having won this title, Świątek’s consistency is still a bar no one else on tour has reached. But she has a chase pack breathing down her neck now. Sabalenka and Rybakina have both beaten her recently, the latter in the fourth round of this very tournament. There’s Jessica Pegula, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Garcia. Ons Jabeur and Maria Sakkari might not have lived up to the Netflix-high expectations this tournament, but they’ll be back, as will Coco Gauff and Collins and the injured Paula Badosa. The potential for rivalries is huge. Who wouldn’t say yes to a Sabalenka-Rybakina rematch, anytime, any place? Wish this cast of characters good health, because the rest of this season could be a truly epic battle royale.
For now, though, everyone has a while to enjoy the afterglow from what was the best major final in some time. It was arguably the best match of the tournament, which is all you can ask for in a championship match. Both players hit their peaks and both felt the wrath of their opponent. The title was well deserved — it’s a tribute to Sabalenka grinding through match after match of hitting 20 double faults until she fixed the glaring hole in her game. The memories will last a lifetime. And our fingernails will not finish growing back until Roland-Garros.