Aryna Sabalenka's victory in the Australian Open on Saturday was not only her first Grand Slam singles title but also the first for a player competing under a neutral flag.
Sabalenka battled back after losing the first set by using a tremendously improved serve to overcome Rybakina. The world No. 5 delivered 17 aces and won 72% of the points on her first serve to pocket around $2 million (€1.8 million) in prize money. Sabalenka had lost her three previous Grand Slam semifinals.
But Sabalenka will not have "Belarus" next to her name on the winner's trophy, nor did she have her flag next to her name throughout the tournament.
With the Belarusian government supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Australian Open said that Russian and Belarusian players could not compete under the flag or name of their countries. Players from both countries were banned from competing at Wimbledon last year, and it is unclear whether the same will be true again in 2023.
The Belarus tennis federation was quick to extend congratulations to the country's second tennis player to win a Grand Slam, and when asked afterward whether competing as a neutral player had taken something away from her triumph, Sabalenka was blunt.
"I think everyone still knows that I'm Belarusian player. That's it," she told reporters.
Winner from nowhere
In December last year, though, Sabalenka told Australian newspaper The Age that playing under a neutral flag in Melbourne made her feel as if she comes "from nowhere."
"I’m just really disappointed sport is somehow in politics," the 24-year-old continued. "We’re just athletes playing their sport. That’s it. We’re not about politics. If all of us could do something, we would do it, but we have zero control."
Sabalenka added: “They banned us from Wimbledon, and what did it change? It’s really terrible because nobody supports the war, nobody."
This year's Australian Open has not been without off-court issues. Andy Murray's frustration about player welfare sparked a conversation around playing times and most recently, Novak Djokovic said his father was 'misinterpreted' for posing with a man holding a Russian flag with President Vladimir Putin's face on it.