Djokovic and Sabalenka Triumph in Melbourne

Kate reflects on the Australian Open where Aryna Sabalenka won her first Grand Slam singles title and Novak Djokovic triumphed yet again.

The first Grand Slam champions of 2023 have been crowned at the Australian Open, with both the men’s and women’s singles finals featuring exciting displays of tennis.

The women’s singles final on January 28 saw Belarus’s Aryna Sabalenka defeat Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina in three sets, coming back from a set down to clinch her first Grand Slam title in singles. 24-year-old Sabalenka, has two grand slams in women’s doubles titles to her name after winning the 2019 US Open and 2021 Australian Open with her partner Elise Mertens. Sabalenka’s victory places her No.2 in the WTA rankings, matching her career-high. The title is her second of 2023; she won the Adelaide 1 International earlier in January without dropping a set, meaning that she hasn’t lost a match since her defeat to Caroline Garcia at the WTA Finals in November.

Both Salabenka and Rybakina came into the final following an impressive run of form, with neither being heavily favored to win the title. Reigning Wimbledon champion Rybakina, 23, appeared to have the more difficult run to the final, with her beating 2022 finalist Danielle Collins, world no. 1 Iga Świątek, and former French Open champion Jeļena Ostapenko. Sabalenka, meanwhile, had only faced two seeded opponents: former doubles partner Mertens and twelfth seed Belinda Bencic. Rybakina took the first set 6-4, but Sabalenka came back to win the second set 6-3. A nervy final set culminated with Sabalenka forcing a forehand error from Rybakina on her fourth match point, securing her maiden Grand Slam title after two and a half hours of high-quality tennis from both players.

Sabalenka’s win makes her the first athlete to win a singles Grand Slam title under a neutral flag, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 prompted the ATP and WTA to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing under their own flags. Players from those countries were notably banned from Wimbledon last summer, with high-profile players such as Sabalenka, fellow Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, and Russian duo Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev being unable to compete. The ATP and WTA subsequently ruled that no ranking points would be awarded at the tournament. The Lawn Tennis Association is yet to announce whether the ban will be extended for the 2023 tournament, which will take place this July.

While the women’s singles tournament saw a first-time champion, the men’s told a different story, with Serbian Novak Djokovic defeating Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets to claim his record-extending tenth Australian Open title.

Tsitsipas was aiming to become the youngest men’s Australian Open winner since Djokovic in 2011 [Credit: Getty Images, BBC Sport].
Djokovic, who was seeded fourth going into the tournament, regained his world no. 1 spot for the seventh time, marking 375 weeks at the top of the rankings. The victory also saw him tie Rafael Nadal’s total of twenty-two Grand Slam titles.

With world no. 1 Carlos Alcaraz withdrawing from the tournament due to a leg injury and top seed and defending champion Nadal losing to unseeded American Mackenzie McDonald in the second round, both Djokovic and Tsitsipas were heavily favored to contend for the title. Despite showing signs of a hamstring injury, Djokovic had dominated his half of the draw in typical fashion, only dropping one set on his way to the final. Straight-sets wins over fifth seed Rublev in the quarterfinals and Tommy Paul in the semifinals had many thinking another title was likely. Tsitsipas, meanwhile, reached his second Grand Slam final after defeating difficult opponents such as Karen Khachanov and Jannik Sinner. This was the second Grand Slam final between Djokovic and Tsitsipas after the 2021 French Open, where the Serb came back from two sets down to clinch the title. In Melbourne, with the world no. 1 ranking on the line, Djokovic won the first set 6-3 before edging out Tsitsipas in consecutive tiebreaks in the last two sets.

Djokovic has 22 Grand Slams to his name [Credit: Reuters].
 In his post-match speech, Djokovic referred to the win as “probably the biggest victory of [his] life”, after his controversial absence from last year’s tournament. After attracting criticism for his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Djokovic had been detained by the Australian Border Force following his arrival in the country in January 2022, with authorities having deemed that he did not meet the requirements for unvaccinated travelers. After his request for a review of his visa application was dismissed, defending champion Djokovic flew out of Australia, with Nadal winning the title in his absence. Djokovic also missed the US Open later in the year, since foreign air travelers in the United States are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. As of February 2023, this requirement has not been lifted, leaving tennis fans unsure of Djokovic’s ability to compete at the ATP tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami this spring, as well as the US Open this Autumn.

Though Sabalenka is looking to cement her status as a top player and Djokovic is undoubtedly wanting to continue breaking and extending records, both face potential hurdles in their season, albeit under different circumstances.

With tournaments in both the US and UK scheduled in the next couple of months, tennis fans will be waiting to see if the two Melbourne champions will be present.

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