Aryna Sabalenka's humiliating Australian Open moment at hands of Ash Barty

Aryna Sabalenka's grand slam debut against Ash Barty at the 2018 Australian Open was a far cry from her final-winning triumph last weekend.

Ash Barty and Aryna Sabalenka are pictured in side by side images, each holding the Australian Open trophy.
Hoisting Australian Open trophies was a pipe dream for Aryna Sabalenka and Ash Barty when they first met on the Australian Open court in 2018. Pictures: Getty Images

Aryna Sabalenka's triumph at the Australian Open was a moment five years in the making - and one the soon-to-be World No.2 never saw coming. Her impressive three-set triumph over Elena Rybakina was a far cry from her first appearance on court at the 2018 Australian Open.

It was an ugly debut for Sabalenka, although not due to her play against Ash Barty. She endured from the Australian Open crowd that day a barrage of cruel taunts centred around the noises she made in hitting each shot.

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Every shot was met with a chorus of grunts and jeers from the crowd, though she maintained her composure throughout what was ultimately a hard-fought three set defeat at the hands of Barty. It was a brutal welcome for the then-19-year-old, one which left Barty shaking her head at the crowd during the match and the chair umpire stepping in to warn spectators.

However it was Sabalenka who resoundingly had the last laugh on Saturday night, beaming with pride after toppling reigning Wimbledon champion Rybakina 4-6 6-3 6-4. There was no such mockery this time around, though Sabalenka definitely hadn't forgotten her grand slam debut.

“My first Australian Open was against Ashleigh on the Rod Laver stadium,” Sabalenka recalled after the match. “I remember after the match thinking, ‘Oh my god I think I will never get it’. That’s crazy.

“I think Australia loves me (laughs). The support this week, I think because everyone remembers last year and everyone wants me to be better. I felt the support and it really motivated me a lot.”

Aryna Sabalenka in disbelief after Australian Open triumph

Sabalenka's watershed win completes a glorious unbeaten summer in which the 24-year-old also claimed the Adelaide International title and dropped only one set in 11 matches to vault herself back to No.2 in the world rankings. Sabalenka has the distinction of being the last player to topple Barty in a final, beating Australia's former world No.1 in Madrid in 2019 before the 26-year-old's shock retirement - 12 more titles and three grand slam crowns later - last March.

Barty was happy for Sabalenka to take centre stage as she finally delivered on her undeniable talent. But it was not straightforward as Rybakina saved three match points in an epic final game before Sabalenka saluted and slumped to the court in relief and perhaps also disbelief.

"I will need a few days to realised what just happened. I'm speechless," Sabalenka said. "It was super emotional, I was super happy that I was able to handle all of the emotions in the last game."

Her success completes one of the great transformations in sport after Sabalenka, gripped by serving yips, departed Melbourne last year following 56 soul-destroying double-faults in just four matches.

With a tour-topping 428 doubles for 2022, 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 and out-aced Rybakina, the Open's ace leader, 17 to nine in the final.

Aryna Sabalenka took three sets to deny reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina a second grand slam title in last weekend's Australian Open final. (Photo by Bai Xuefei/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Aryna Sabalenka took three sets to deny reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina a second grand slam title in last weekend's Australian Open final. (Photo by Bai Xuefei/Xinhua via Getty Images)

"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.

With AAP

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