As is Australian Open tradition, Aryna Sabalenka has packed up the racquets and sweaty clothes from last night’s stunning victory and stepped out with the trophy … looking absolutely glamorous.
But there was one key piece of detail missing from the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup she was lovingly clutching on a gondola in Melbourne on Sunday.
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Sabalenka’s name was engraved on the trophy immediately after her win over former Russian Elena Rybakinabut the engraver did not include her country of origin.
She competes for Belarus but the war on Ukraine means that country – like Russia – is not being recognised by the ATP and the WTA.
So during the coverage, Sabalenka had a blank space next to her name where her country’s flag icon would sit.
And that blank space next to her name has continued, now onto the trophy.
Sabalenka is still unable to compete at Wimbledon and it is currently unclear if that rule will be changed for this year’s tournament.
But for the moment, Sabalenka is just soaking it all up, declaring her stirring Australian Open final triumph as the best day of her life.
She has returned from the depths of despair only 10 months ago to finally claim her maiden grand slam singles crown.
At one point she had been grappling with self doubts, and gripped by her infamous serving yips (which her trusted coach Anton Dubrov tried to walk away from).
But Sabalenka insisted: “No, it’s not you. We just have to work through these tough moments and we’ll come back stronger.”
“It was after Dubai happened. He just said like, ‘I don’t know what to do. I think you need to find someone else who’s going to help you’.
“But I knew that it’s not about him. It’s just something about me. I just have to figure out the problem. We have to get through it.”
And get through it they did.
After coughing up some 56 double faults and crashing out in the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open, a desperate Sabalenka turned to a psychologist and biomechanic – and the stunning transformation is now complete.
Tennis’s most unfulfilled talent is a major winner at last.
“I’m really happy that we keep working together. We went through so many things together,” the 24-year-old said as she savoured Saturday night’s 4-6 6-3 6-4 victory over Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina.
“It’s even sweeter that we get it together as a team. It was a long journey for us. We are here with the grand slam title, which is really amazing.
“Nothing comes easily.”
Being banned from competing at Wimbledon last year because of the invasion of Ukraine was enough “really tough” moments for Sabalenka.
But she returned to grand slam tennis at the US Open with new-found belief, drawing only positives from a tight three-set semi-final loss to world No.1 Iga Swiatek in New York – her third tumble at the last four of a major.
“I learned that I have to be a little bit calmer on court and I don’t have to rush things,” Sabalenka said.
“I just have to play my game, be calm, and believe in myself, that I can actually get it.
“These two weeks I really was super calm on court, and I really believed in myself a lot, that my game will give me a lot of opportunities in each game to win this title.”
Before, Sabalenka never truly believed she belonged.
“I always had this weird feeling when people would come to me and ask for signature,” she said.
“I would be like, ‘Why are you asking for signature? I’m nobody. I don’t have a grand slam’ and all this stuff.
“But I just changed how I feel. Like, I started to respect myself more. I started to understand that actually I’m here because I work so hard and I’m actually good player.
“Just having this understanding that I’m a good player, I can handle a lot of emotions, a lot of things on court.
“Every time I had a tough moment on court, I was just reminding myself that I’m good enough to handle all this, just everything.”
Sabalenka will return to an equal-career-high No.2 in the world on Monday, with the top ranking and more major spoils in her sights.
“We all have the kind of the same goals,” she said.
“Winning a grand slam, of course. It’s not the last one on my list.”
– with AAP
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