Belarusian Sabalenka crowned first 'neutral' Grand Slam champion
MELBOURNE, Jan 28 (Reuters) - With daring, resolve and a thunderous forehand, Aryna Sabalenka rose above geopolitical tumult to become the first player to claim a Grand Slam title as a neutral at the Australian Open.
The big-hitting Belarusian overhauled Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina 4-6 6-3 6-4 in the final at Rod Laver Arena on Saturday while barred from representing the eastern European nation.
Russian and Belarusian players are effectively "stateless" on the ATP and WTA tours, competing as individuals without national affiliation due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Had Rybakina not switched allegiance to Kazakhstan in 2018, the Russia-born player would also have competed as a neutral.
Perhaps for the first time ever at Rod Laver Arena, the championship match was played without fans waving the national flag of the winner in the terraces.
Deemed a disruption by organisers, fans were banned from bringing Russian and Belarusian flags to Melbourne Park on the second day of the tournament after a complaint from the Ukraine embassy in Australia.
Sabalenka will not have "Belarus" next to her name on the winner's trophy, the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
They may have seemed mere details as the 24-year-old joyously celebrated with her team in the players' box and sipped on a glass of champagne at her post-match media conference.
But her mood darkened slightly when asked whether being a neutral player had taken something away from her triumph.
"I think everyone still knows that I'm Belarusian player. That's it," she told reporters flatly.
Sabalenka and other Belarusian and Russian players were banned from Wimbledon last year, a polarising decision that triggered heavy fines from the men's ATP and women's WTA tours and also saw the Grand Slam's ranking points taken away.
With the conflict in Ukraine raging on, Wimbledon will soon need to decide whether the player ban should remain in place.
Asked whether missing Wimbledon made her Australian Open win sweeter, Sabalenka was non-committal.
"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."
The Belarus tennis federation was quick to extend congratulations to the country's second tennis player to win a Grand Slam, following on from twice Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who was knocked out in the semi-finals.
Sabalenka thought people in Belarus would be proud of her but she had no plans to celebrate with them in the short term.
"I think I will go back to Miami. I live there right now," she said.
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