INDIAN WELLS, United States, March 20, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina edged Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (13/11), 6-4 on Sunday to win the Indian Wells WTA title and avenge her loss to the Belarusian in the Australian Open final.
Kazakhstan's Rybakina, the world number 10 who ousted top-ranked defending champion Iga Swiatek in the semi-finals, followed up with her first victory over second-ranked Sabalenka in five career meetings.
Rybakina, projected to rise to seventh in the world, handed Sabalenka just her second defeat of the year, denying her a third title to go with a win in Adelaide that presaged her first Grand Slam triumph at Melbourne.
"It's actually the first time it goes my way," Rybakina said as she accepted the trophy, a smiling Sabalenka leaning to the microphone to interject, "I will make sure it was the last one."
"We'll see next time," Rybakina laughed.
The banter belied another tense battle between the two, who had gone to three sets in all four prior encounters.
Sabalenka had the edge from the baseline, but, in the face of fierce pressure from Rybakina, the serve demons that beset the Belarusian last year resurfaced and her 10 double faults in the opening frame ultimately proved too much to overcome.
After fending off three break points in a marathon fourth game, she broke Rybakina to gain the first advantage.
But Sabalenka handed back the break with a double fault as Rybakina leveled the set at 4-4.
She gifted Rybakina a set point with another double fault in the 12th game and while the Kazakhstan player couldn't capitalize, she would do so finally in the tiebreaker.
Sabalenka herself let two set points go begging on her own serve in the 17-minute tiebreaker before her 10th double fault of the set gave Rybakina her sixth set point and she took it.
Sabalenka, struggling to quell her emotions, was broken to love to open the second set and that was all the opening Rybakina needed.
"It was a rollercoaster," Rybakina said. "With all these double faults, I think we were both so tight, because we both knew that it's not easy with our serves to hold it but also to try to break.
"It's been just a rollercoaster and I'm happy that the first set went my way so the second was a bit easier."
An early break was even more important as the blustery wind picked up in the second set.
The Moscow-born Kazakh saved a pair of break points to push her lead to 3-1 and, with Sabalenka in survival mode, she ripped a backhand return up the line for a break that put her ahead 5-2.
Sabalenka wouldn't go quietly, breaking Rybakina to love and holding serve with ease with the wind at her back.
- Super disappointed -
But Rybakina polished it off with confidence on her first match point when Sabalenka smacked a service return into the net.
"I think I was super disappointed with myself after the first set, especially coming back, and then she had a set point, then you kind of hold it," said Sabalenka, who was kicking herself for going for bigger serves than she needed on her set points.
"There is no pressure on me, why would I go for bigger serves? Just serve to the body and just play the point," she said. "I was over-hitting."
She admitted that her failure to convert set points on her own serve was discouraging and affected her early in the second set.
"Seems like in the first two games I wasn't there," she said. "I was just all over the place and I was just trying to bring myself back on court and keep fighting. It didn't work well today."
Rybakina has now won her past four matches against top-two opponents. She beat then No. 2 Ons Jabeur at Wimbledon and has beaten Swiatek twice this year -- including a stunning fourth-round upset at the Australian Open.
She's the first Indian Wells WTA champion to beat both the No. 1 and No. 2 players on the way to the title.