Aryna Sabalenka Crowned First 'Neutral' Grand Slam Champion - Everything You Need To Know
Aryna Sabalenka's maiden Australian Open singles title holds special importance when considered over the backdrop of geopolitics.
Aryna Sabalenka scripted a brilliant comeback to win her maiden Australian Open singles title after defeating Jelena Rybakina in the final on Saturday. The 24-year-old from Belarus had previously won the US Open title in 2019 and the Australian Open title in 2021 but on both occasions, it came in the doubles category along with Elise Mertens. However, that was not the only thing that was different this year. With the Russia-Ukraine conflict not showing any signs of slowing down, all Russian and Belarusian players are forced to compete without any national affiliation and as a result, Sabalenka became the first player in history to win a Grand Slam while competing under a neutral flag.
Your #AO2023 women's singles champion, @SabalenkaA 🙌@wwos • @espn • @eurosport • @wowowtennis • #AusOpen pic.twitter.com/5ggS5E7JTp— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 28, 2023
The situation was even more interesting for her opponent – Rybakina – who was actually born in Russia. However, the reigning Wimbledon champion decided to become a citizen of Kazakhstan back in 2018 and that was the reason why she was exempted from participation as a ‘neutral'.
However, world politics took a back seat on Saturday as the two talented women fought it out for the title before Sabalenka clinched the summit clash 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 at the Rod Laver Arena.
Due to the rule enforced by the global tennis organisations, no Belarusian flags were allowed inside the venue and even the winner's trophy will have no mention of Sabalenka's nationality.
“I think everyone still knows that I'm Belarusian player. That's it,” she told reporters after the match.
There's nothing like your first Grand Slam singles title 🏆@SabalenkaA • #AusOpen • #AO2023 pic.twitter.com/O48azgVzWu— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 28, 2023
It has been a tough journey for Sabalenka since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. Belarusian and Russian tennis players were banned from playing Wimbledon in 2022 and that had a major impact on her rankings. It is yet to be announced if the ruling will continue in 2023 as well.
“I mean, missing the Wimbledon was really tough for me. It was a tough moment for me,” she said.
“But I mean, I played the U.S. Open after. It's not about Wimbledon right now. It's just about the hard work I've done,” she explained when asked by reporters at the post-match conference.