Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka reached the Australian Open final

MELBOURNE, Australia — What seemed so different, so daunting, even trying to win a Grand Slam title for Elena Rybakin just over six months ago, now comes quite naturally.

If she manages to win one more match, she will add to the one she collected at Wimbledon and the first place at the Australian Open.

Rybakina, 23, who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in the space of three majors when she beat Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise towards the top.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to take her tournament total to 44. “Now I kind of understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy on Saturday when she faces No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenko of Belarus. The 24-year-old Sabalenkova reached her first Grand Slam title match when she beat unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she contested this season.

More importantly, the win over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi-final after going 0-3 at this stage so far, losing each previous attempt 6-4 in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka use a somewhat similar type of tennis, relying on big serves and big baseline shots. Sabalenka, however, is far less cautious and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before gone past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 lead for the winner, but also created more unforced errors than Linette.

The key to both semi-finals was actually a first-set tiebreak. Azarenka lost track of her shots, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t like every one of Sabalenka’s shots hit the line, but it must have felt that way to Linette.

Meanwhile, Rybakina has added to her already impressive run through a number of top opponents. Azarenka, champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, joins a list of players Rybakina has eliminated over the past two weeks that includes Iga Swiatek and Jelena Ostapenko – both major title holders – and the Australian from 2022. Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister were in town for the duration of the Australian Open. “I knew I had to focus on every point.

As usual, Rybakina did it with her powerful serve, hitting it at speeds of up to 117 mph and a stinging backhand that closed out points seemingly at will. The performance was particularly notable against a returner and defender who has established herself on hard courts like Azarenka, the former No. 1 and three-time US Open runner-up.

“Hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously I had quite a few chances that I took.

Rybakina may be seeded 22nd and 25th in Melbourne, but those numbers don’t speak to her talent and form. Rybakina did not get the usual bang from her title at Wimbledon in July, where she was awarded zero ranking points after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus over the invasion of Ukraine.

In the Rod Laver Arena, from the beginning of the match Rybakina vs. Azarenka windy and cold, temperature dropping below 70 degrees. That may have played a part in the way the first set was as see-saw as it gets, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand and relinquish it just as quickly.

“I couldn’t play really aggressive tennis,” Rybakina said. “The ball didn’t go very well.”

Rybaka’s occasional inconsistency was encapsulated in the first game. She started inauspiciously with a double fault before holding on with the help of three aces.

Azarenka raced to a 3-2 lead on a diving volley winner in full overtime with both women at the net. However, Rybakina broke right back and then once more to make it 5-3.

That allowed Rybakin to serve for the set and she needed just one point at 40-30, but Azarenka conjured a superb forehand down the line to erase the chance and wrap up the game with a big backhand. the winner, which she emphasized by shouting “Let’s go!”

An error-filled tiebreak ended with Azarenka pushing her forehand wide to end the 11-shot exchange. Rybakina raced to a 2-1 lead in the second, and as they continued to play for the next 25 minutes, the outcome was never in much doubt.

Sure enough, Rybakina faltered again as she struggled to serve out a 5-2 victory. No one expected Azarenkova to go quietly. But the final break, boosted by Azarenka’s double fault, allowed Rybakina to take another step towards another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give all I have left.”

Billie Jean King and six other members of the pioneering “Original 9” group of Hall of Famers whose $1 contracts more than half a century ago paved the way for the millions now on offer in women’s tennis were in the stands for the semifinals.

“I want to say a big ‘thank you’ from the players because it’s unbelievable what you’ve done for us, for the new generation,” Rybakina said. “It means a lot.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *