The first women’s Grand Slam final in the post-Serena Williams era is shaping up to be an excellent match — and is loaded with the types of storylines concerning the sport’s youth that it’s been yearning for since the GOAT’s retirement.
On Saturday night in Melbourne — 3:30 a.m. in the United States Eastern Time zone — WTA No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka will face off against No. 25 Elena Rybakina for the 2023 Australian Open title.
The 24-year-old Sabalenka has been on the brink of a breakout for years, reaching a career-high ranking of No. 2 in 2021 — but Saturday will be her first appearance in a Grand Slam final.
On the other side, 23-year-old Rybakina has come out of nowhere to claim tennis stardom, as she was the first Kazakhstani player — man or woman — to win a Grand Slam when she won her maiden major at Wimbledon last season.
The Championships’ ban on Russian and Belarusian players — and subsequent suspension of ranking points — is having unexpected consequences on the perception of the Aussie Final: As a Belarusian, Sabalenka did not play at Wimbledon, while Rybakina was not able to gain the maximum ranking points she deserved as a result of winning.
As such, this match could be more competitive than the rankings would suggest: Sabalenka comes in as a -130 favorite to Rybakina’s +105 underdog status. They came in +750 and +2200 odds, respectively, to win it all before the tournament began.
Win or lose, both players stand to benefit financially by playing in the Australian Open Final.
The winner of the match will take home a record $2.98 million AUD ($2.11M USD) prize, while the runner up will bring home $1.63 million AUD ($1.15M USD). Rybakina earned $3.61 million in prize money last season, while Sabalenka earned $2.44 million — fourth and eighth in WTA, respectively.
But winning would provide the ultimate prize: marketing clout.
The maiden major win for Sabalenka could finally give her the mainstream appeal she’s been chasing for some time, while Rybakina’s second Grand Slam win in the span of months could let potential endorsers know she’s for real.
“Sponsors and money, it’s important because it brings this financial security,” tennis legend Maria Sharapova said on Netflix’s “Break Point.” “You get a sponsorship and you think it’s forever, but guess what? It’s not. It’s not forever unless you keep winning.”