Australian Open: Rybakina and Sabalenka will battle each other – and their demons

Kazakhstan's Elena Elena has met Aryna Sabalenka three times and come off second-best. Will the AO final turn the tide. <i>Photo: AAP</i>

Kazakhstan's Elena Elena has met Aryna Sabalenka three times and come off second-best. Will the AO final turn the tide. Photo: AAP

Asked yesterday what he really thought of his charge, the man publicly denounced for shouting at Elena Rybakina from the stands during Thursday’s singles semi-final was full of superlatives.

“She’s a wonderful girl,” said Stefano Vukov, who has coached Rybakina for the past four years. “She listens a lot. Very calm, stoic but a sweetheart.”

The intelligent if occasionally intense Vukov, who has patently embraced the new laws allowing on-court coaching, is likely to be as itchy as they come tonight.

Rybakina has played the Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka three times to-date and lost every time, though each clash has gone to three sets.

The players come with similar basic stats. Sabalenka is 13 months older (she is 24) but Rybakina at 184cm shoes off, is two centimetres taller. Both are strong.

Expect short, powerful points, big winners and a good few mistakes.

Rybakina and Sabalenka are not necessarily the most well known of names but they are two first-rate young women and very much at the apex of the women’s game. And they already come with a colourful history.

After her semi-final win on Thursday, Rybakina was asked if Bulat will be at tonight’s final

Bulat Utemuratov’s billions have made Kazakstan a rising tennis power. Photo: Utemuratov Foundation

“I heard that he wants to come, but I don’t know with the schedule and everything if he will be able,” she said. “It would be nice to see him.”

For the uninitiated, Bulat Utemuratov was the prominent man in the white Panama hat in Rybakina’s box when she won the Wimbledon singles title in July.

He is a billionaire industrialist who has thrown millions of dollars at tennis, and tennis players, to build up the sport in Kazakstan. The Moscow-born Rybakina – she still lives there – was an early beneficiary of the Utemuratov financial largess, hence her switch to represent a county more widely associated with the fictional Borat than Bulat.

The Kazakstan tycoon’s ‘spend whatever it takes’ approach is working. The new ATP tournament two months ago in the national capital, Asana, drew Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Such talent does not come cheap.

It’s a family affair

Whether Bulat is in Melbourne or not, Rybakina will have her parents and sister (who all missed Wimbledon) in Rod Laver Arena.

“They don’t see me often playing live, so I think this time it’s a big result already,” Rybakina said.

She has dropped just one set, to 2022 runner-up Danielle Collins, this AO and despite her lowly official ranking of just 25 (she would be ranked number seven had the points she picked up for winning Wimbledon been allowed to stand) will be many people’s pick to win.

Expect aces aplenty, power hitting all round and a touch of nerves also (outward self-certainly does not course though either woman).

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, twice AO junior girl’s winner and Rybakina’s double partner this past month, is in awe of her friend.

“She’s very young still, but she has great groundstrokes, an unbelievable serve and is a great athlete,” Pavlyuchenkova said.

Vukov believes Rybakina’s Wimbledon triumph over Ons Jabeur last July, allied with a strong pre-season, will stand her in good stead tonight.

Up from the depths

“I think experience is a big factor. Once you go through the roller-coaster ride once, you know what to expect emotionally,” Vukov said.

“We had a really, really good pre-season. I think she’s improved a lot physically, tactically tennis-wise. Obviously, you never know if you’re going to go this far but preparation was key.”

It is a testament Sabalenka will be very wary of, but she has cause for looking up after her career appeared about to implode just 12 months ago in South Australia.

Facing Swedish qualifier Rebecca Peterson (a gimme) in the first round of the WTA Adelaide International, Sabalenka – then officially the second-best player in the world – served 21 double faults across three sets.

The tally might have been higher had she not resorted to underarm serves. This was not a tactical ploy and did not come with the last gasp sneakiness that Nick Kyrgios can bring with his similar deliveries. There was no spin or looking away to distract her opponent – these were serves akin to simply the feeding the ball into play as a parent or benevolent teacher might do, just to get things going.

When, on the final point of the match, Sabalenka was faced with a kindly ball dropping slowly just inside her baseline, she elected to prod it with a half-hearted forehand rather than the simple smash that should have guaranteed her the point. The ball accordingly plopped into the middle of the net and the agony, for everyone present, was over.

It was a watch-behind-your-hands scenario, the yips as you’ve never seen them.

Impressively, Sabalenka pulled herself together in Melbourne a few days later before exiting the Australian Open in round four. Her year wobbled on, but a semi-final at the US Open, plus the final in the yearend WTA Finals in Texas, bolstered her belief and ranking (she is seeded five in Melbourne this year).

Cleaning the slate

Three weeks ago, at the scene of her humiliation, she won the WTA 500 Adelaide International, not a set dropped.

The serves were still wonky, but the difference from a year ago was night and day. The confidence was restored and Sabalenka was back. But such is her coruscating belt-it-and-see style there will always be errors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Aryna Sabalenka has worked hard to put last year’s Adelaide yips behind her. Photo: Getty

She has not dropped a set this AO either. She is formidable and fearsome, with the huge tiger tattoo on her inner left forearm impossible to look away from. (In an ages old tale, she had it done when she was just 18 she said and her mum didn’t speak to her for a week.)

Late on Friday, Sabalenka’s coach, Anton Dubrov, and fitness guru Jason Stacy gave the low-down on how she overcame last year’s service abyss.

It centred, said Dubrov, around the mental challenge of coming to terms with accepting that what happened was just part of life. ‘Don’t overthink it’ was the message.

Stacey talked about humility – and the fear – Sabalenka faced last year.

“Instead of avoiding it or trying to go around it, she went right through it (and) hit it face-on,” he said.

“I think going through that process has helped her kind of realise, ‘Oh, the best way – really, actually – is what everyone always says, to face your fear and go through it.

“I think it’s given her this more internal belief that, okay, even if this particular game or this moment in a match is tough, it’s okay, just keep going and it will all come back together.”

Self-belief and a better serve

The process is still not perfect, said Dubrov, who talked about the work Sabalenka has done with a biomechanist which led to a wholesale change of her service motion.

Crucially, it gave her the confidence to know she could fix any problem herself, he said, to know she can take control.

And the outcome of the final?

The finalists’ three matches to-date count for nothing, said Dubrov.

“It’s a new match. The last time was Wimbledon two years ago, so I would say [this is] just like another life.”


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