MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Aryna Sabalenka figures she’ll feel some jitters when she steps out on court to face Elena Rybakina in the Australian Open women’s final.
Saturday’s contest is, after all, Sabalenka’s first singles title match at a Grand Slam tournament. Rybakina is more familiar with this stage: She won Wimbledon a little more than six months ago.
“That’s OK, to feel little bit nervous. It’s a big tournament, big final,” Sabalenka said. “If you’re going to start trying to do something about that, it’s going to become bigger, you know?”
She is seeded No. 5; Rybakina is No. 22. Sabalenka is a 24-year-old from Belarus; Rybakina is a 23-year-old who was born in Moscow and began representing Kazakhstan in 2018 when that country offered to fund her tennis career.
“For me, this time, I would say it was a bit easier, compared to Wimbledon, when I was playing for the first time (in a major) quarters, semis, final,” said Rybakina, the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to beat three past Grand Slam champions during one edition at Melbourne Park.
That run includes victories over three-time Slam winner and Iga Swiatek, 2012-13 Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and 2017 French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko, along with Danielle Collins, the runner-up at Melbourne a year ago.
Both Rybakina and Sabalenka are among the most powerful players on tour, using big serves and groundstrokes to overwhelm opponents. It’s a style that evokes the way the Williams sisters went about winning when they began to transform the sport — and rather different from the way the current No. 1, Iga Swiatek, and her predecessor, the retired Ash Barty, went about things.
“As a matchup, I mean, it’s going to be a lot of mistakes, a lot of winners, I’m sure about that, from both sides, because there is going to be a lot of pressure,” said Stefano Vukov, Rybakina’s coach. “I think who serves well tomorrow goes through. That’s my feeling.”
Both finalists are indeed capable of terrific serving, which was not always the case for Sabalenka.
She has won a tournament-high 89% of her service games, holding in 49 of 55, meaning she has been broken an average of just once per match. It’s a significant development for someone who struggled mightily with double-faulting last year, accumulating nearly 400 over the course of the season, including more than 20 in some matches.
But Sabalenka reworked the mechanics on her serve during a five-day session less than a month before the U.S. Open, where she got to the semifinals. Something else Sabalenka has improved that has made her a better player: the way she manages her mindset during a match.
Instead of “screaming after some bad points or some errors” the way she used to, Sabalenka said she now tries to “hold myself, stay calm, just think about the next point. … Just less negative emotions.”
Rybakina rarely lets so much as the slightest trace of emotion show, even when she clinched the championship at the All England Club.
Both tend to seek to put an end to points with quick strikes from the baseline.
Sabalenka has managed to keep the ledger tilted quite a bit in her favor, accumulating 196 winners (32.7 per match) and 136 unforced errors (22.7 per match). Rybakina’s numbers are more even, averaging 26.3 winners and 24.8 unforced errors.
This will be their fourth head-to-head meeting, and Sabalenka is 3-0 so far, winning each in three sets, although they haven’t played each other since Wimbledon in 2021.
Since then, Sabalenka’s coach, Anton Dubrov observed, “Aryna lost (her) serve. Then she found the serve. Meanwhile, Rybakina won a Slam. They both kind of came here from different directions. So I would say … all previous matches don’t matter at all. It’s going to be something really new.”
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