Aryna Sabalenka has found herself at the centre of an ugly controversy after winning her maiden grand slam title in a thrilling Australian Open women's final against Elena Rybakina on Saturday night. Sabalenka choked back tears of joy and relief after clinching a breakthrough major trophy in a pulsating come-from-behind win.
The fifth seed battled back from a set down to defeat reigning Wimbledon champion Rybakina 4-6 6-3 6-4 on Rod Laver Arena. The win saw the 24-year-old shed her unwanted tag as the best player on the women's tour without a major.
However, in strange scenes after Sabalenka's win, no Belarusian flags were visible inside Rod Laver Arena after they were banned from being displayed at the Australian Open. Sabalenka was competing at Melbourne Park under a neutral flag, in compliance with Tennis Australia's guidelines.
All players from Russia and Belarus had to compete as neutrals, with both national flags and other nationalistic items from those countries banned from the tournament. Graphics on television broadcasts also showed a plain white flag next to the names of those competitors. The move - which has also been in effect at other tournaments and sporting events around the world - is in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the Belarusian government's long-standing support for Vladimir Putin's regime.
Fans also noticed after Sabalenka's thrilling maiden grand slam triumph, that as well as the absence of Belarusian flags, her country was also missing from the engraving on the winner's trophy - with the space next to her name left blank instead. The situation divided opinion on social media, with many fans insisting that politics should be kept separate from sport, and that Sabalenka's country should at least have been included on the trophy.
— Neil McLeman (@NeilMcLeman) January 28, 2023
Could somebody please explain to me the diagnosis of the person who made the decision for this? Is Sabalenka an alien or what? Shame on you @AustralianOpen #AusOpen #australianopen2023 #AO2023 #WTA @WTA pic.twitter.com/3B0UYCEgNo
— thelordoftheeld (@tlote93) January 28, 2023
Seeing pathetic childish woke #AusOpen wont show Grand Slam champion Aryna Sabalenka @SabalenkaA #Belarus flag, here you go.
Well done, a great achievement, from an embarrassed Australian. pic.twitter.com/JO3jDmwvpd
— Mark Neugebauer (@MarkNeugebaue13) January 28, 2023
Aryna #Sabalenka from #Belarus 🇧🇾 just won the 2023 Aus Open women's final. She became a Grand Slam champion for the first time.
But they're hiding her flag 🇧🇾 because of her origin. She deserves the same respect as every other player.
Congratulations Aryna Sabalenka 🇧🇾🇧🇾🇧🇾 ! pic.twitter.com/YZA29sscLA
— York (@BrokeYork6) January 28, 2023
What an insult to #AustralianOpen2023 winner Aryna Sabalenka. So apparently "offensive" in sport is her country to Ukraine, not only was her Belarus flag blocked out while she played, these low life pandering officials didn't have the decency to engrave her country on her trophy. pic.twitter.com/MwaSO3UgHo
— ExposeTheCorrupt (@AUS_Loyalist) January 28, 2023
And they don’t have the decency to add her country on the trophy, Sabalenka now has no country of birth …. what an absolute disgrace.#AustralianOpen
Again they continue to mix sport and politics (what everyone says you shouldn’t mix) when it suits them and their narrative. https://t.co/0XF619x1kd pic.twitter.com/oje0Nj7tWz
— Vlado Blažeka (@vladoblazeka) January 28, 2023
Without taking anything away from Sabalenka's great achievement, #Belarus is as much of an aggressor as #Russia is, allied to invade #Ukraine. No one pardoned the Japanese for its war damages after Hitler's demise. https://t.co/IiXwpWJCzd
— Ain Tohvri (@tekkie) January 28, 2023
Surely this must be uncomfortable reading for the @AustralianOpen organisers @TennisAustralia that new women’s champion Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus trained in Russia before the #AusOpen https://t.co/rHeOvdpezi
— Laura (@aberquine) January 28, 2023
Here, by the way, is what Sabalenka said in her Press Conference today when asked about having been banned by Wimbledon and having her nationality banned from the trophy. Nothing is likely to bother her after winning, but her answers show the stupidity of all of these bans: pic.twitter.com/JDqUQpCeND
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 28, 2023
To her credit, Sabalenka wasn't too fussed when asked about the subject in her post-match press conference. “I think everyone still knows that I’m a Belarusian player,” she said
“That’s it. Will this be a big deal in my country:? I think so. I think people will be proud of me. But I think I will go back to Miami. I live there right now.”
Aryna Sabalenka shrugs off horrors of 2022
Sabalenka's watershed win completes a glorious unbeaten summer in which the 24-year-old also claimed the Adelaide International title. The Belarusian only dropped one set from 11 matches - coming in the final against Rybakina - and is set to jump back to World No.2 after her Australian Open triumph.
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 honour of being the last player to topple Barty in a final, having beaten the former World No.1 in Madrid in 2019.
Barty was happy for Sabalenka to take centre stage as she finally delivered on her undeniable talent. It was far from straightforward for the Belarusian though, as Rybakina saved three match points in an epic final game before Sabalenka saluted and slumped to the court in relief.
"I will need a few days to realised what just happened. I'm speechless," Sabalenka afterwards. "It was super emotional, I was super happy that I was able to handle all of the emotions in the last game."
Sabalenka's win helps banish the demons from last year's Australian Open, where she dished up 56 soul-destroying double-faults in just four matches. Her service struggles were still evident in the final - such as a double fault on the very first point - but it was a far cry from her struggles in 2022.
With a tour-topping 428 double faults last year, 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. She even hit more aces (17) than the Open's ace leader Rybakina (9) 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.
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