Melbourne | It’s a Rybakina versus Sabalenka AO final

After two thrilling and nail-biting semi-finals, Wimbledon champion Rybakina will meet Aryna Sabalenka in the Australian Open final on Saturday, thus averting an all-Belarusian meeting for the title.

I already did it once at Wimbledon and, of course, I got confident that I can do it again. I did really good preparation with the team. I'm not really surprised with the results. I'm just hungry to work and improve more. Elena Rybakina

Rybakina, the No 22 seed from Kazakstan, made it into her second major final after defeating former World No 1 and two-time AO champion Victoria Azarenka, 7-6(4) 6-3, while 5th-seeded Sabalenka achieved her first Grand Slam Last 4 win at her 4th attempt with a 7-6(1) 6-2 defeat of Poland’s Magda Linette.

Facing a 3rd major champion, Rybakina, 23, notched wins over last year’s finalist, Danielle Collins, World No 1 Iga Swiatek, 2019 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and now champion Azarenka in Melbourne.

“For sure I’m super happy, I’m super proud,” she said. “I’m very happy to play her one more time.

“Today it was a little tough for me, different conditions, I couldn’t be super aggressive. In the end I managed to win, and I’ll try my best in the final, of course.

“For sure I got a lot of experience from Wimbledon, to be honest, I just want to come on court and enjoy the moment, the atmosphere. I’ll try my best, fight and hopefully I’m going to win.”

Having lost out on ranking points at Wimbledon, the Russian-born Kazakh is guaranteed to make her Top 10 debut next week, following Linette’s loss in the second semi-final.

With the ‘Original 9’ watching on, the Wimbledon champion put on a fitting display to eventually overpower Azarenka in a high-quality contest on Thursday night.

With 3 consecutive aces to cap an opening hold, Rybakina set the tone before clattering a 135 km/h backhand cross court, but it was the experienced Azarenka who made the first move.

They exchanged blows from the baseline before Azarenka broke first for a 3-1 lead on an entertaining cat-and-mouse point at the net, but Rybakina broke straight back, and settled herself on serve to take a 4-3 lead.

Rybakina broke for a 5-3 lead but could not close the set, as Azarenka saved set point with a running forehand down the line pass and then broke to get back on serve.

This time it was Rybakina’s turn to withstand the pressure on her serve and, in the biggest game of the set, the Kazakh saved herself from 0-40 down to hold at 6-5.

For 10 successive points Rybakina’s hitherto reliable first serve could not find the mark but, somehow, she erased the 0-40 deficit to regain the momentum, and a tiebreak was needed to sort the matter.

Rybakina went on to play a clean breaker to edge Azarenka, finishing with 20 winners to 16 unforced errors and winning the set despite serving at only 48%, while the Belarusian finished with 17 winners and 13 unforced errors.

“Overall I felt like I was handling her serve actually pretty well,” Azarenka said. “Couple shots after that, I wasn’t adjusting well. Some balls were coming slow. Some balls were coming faster.

“I felt, like, I wasn’t really focusing on what I have to do. Kind of misjudged a lot of balls.”

Elena Rybakina (L) was a straight sets winner over two-time AO champion Victoria Azarenka on Thursday

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Having lost just one set in the tournament, Rybakina proved a formidable front-runner and, with a set in hand, she broke Azarenka quickly and consolidated to lead 3-1 in the second set, just as the Belarusian’s serve began to falter, and then grabbed a second to lead 5-2.

Azarenka was unable to generate a break point but she earned two chances as Rybakina tried to serve out the win.

A clean return winner at 5-2, 30-40 gave the 33-year-old one break back, but Rybakina closed out the match on her return, with a 6th double-fault from Azarenka giving the Kazakh triple-break point, and the Wimbledon champion converted after the Belarusian’s final shot landed in the net.

Her pinpoint striking, coupled with raw power, had again proved relentless, and it was too much for Rybakina’s 6th opponent in a row.

“I already did it once at Wimbledon and, of course, I got confident that I can do it again,” she said. “I did really good preparation with the team.

“I’m not really surprised with the results. I’m just hungry to work and improve more.”

It wasn’t one of Rybakina’s cleanest performances of the fortnight, although she still blasted 30 winners past the reach of Azarenka and, with 89 per cent of returns landing in, she kept herself in contention in every game.

Rybakina finished the 1-hour and 41-minute match with 9 aces among those winner, to 21 unforced errors, while Azarenka struck 26 winners to her 27 miscues.

“I couldn’t get free points on my serve that easy, like during the day when I played the matches,” Rybakina said. “I knew that I need just to adjust. I was doing the correct things.

“It was just a matter to be more focused on these important moments. In the end, I just was playing point by point no matter score. Everything went well.”

Keeping the sustained pressure on Azarenka’s serve, Rybakina took 5 of the 11 break points she orchestrated, compared to Azarenka’s 3 out of 8 chances.

Azarenka rued her missed opportunity: “I’m proud of myself how I fought and I tried, but tennis-wise I felt like just wasn’t there, especially in the important moments when I kept creating those opportunities for me. Just couldn’t convert them.

“Not a great feeling right now to digest. But give me a couple of hours and I can have probably a better outlook on this month in Australia. Look forward to throughout the year what I can do.”

Aryna Sabalenka saw off a spirited challenge from Magda Linette in the second semi-final on Thursday night

© Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Meanwhile, 23-year-old Rybakina moves on to meet Sabalenka, who brushed aside Linette, the surprise unseeded package, in straight sets in her semi-final played later on Thursday night.

The 24-year-old was once considered an under-achiever, and she is still chasing a maiden major title, but she was into her 4th Grand Slam semi-final from her past 6 attempts, joining all-time great Chris Evert (48), Ann Jones (6), Billie Jean King, Elena Dementieva and Naomi Osaka (all 4) in doing so.

Her opponent on Thursday night, Linette, was the last Pole standing in Melbourne, and has a British coach, Mark Gellard, who is originally from Reading but is now based in Florida where he works with the 30-year old.

“I need to check my bonus structure!” he joked ahead of the semi-final. “Honestly I’m still speechless about it. Because as a coach you believe – you have to believe – and I do really believe but until it happens… I don’t know what it’s like, I’ve never done it and as a coach, I’ve never been in this position.

“It means a lot to her. I said today before the match ‘Magda, you are a grand slam quarter-finalist and that’s never going to be taken away from you’. And now she’s grand slam semi-finalist. So we’re just building and I think I believe that even if she’d lost it [the quarter-final], she was doing the right stuff.”

In 2022, they began working with Ian Hughes, another British coach who had, in fact, overseen Gellard’s own fledgling career when he was a player at the Sutton Academy in south-west London.

“We’ve had a couple of sports psychologists that have been helpful and then, before the grass started last year, Ian had finished working with his player and had some time, so he’s come in and helped stabilise things a little bit,” Gellard said. “That’s been really good.”

Despite the loss, Linette leaves Melbourne with her head held high, after becoming just the 3rd Polish woman to reach the AO semis in the Open Era, and poised to rise to a career-high No 22 after her heroics this fortnight.

Magda Linette's stunning run at the Australian Open ended in the semi-finals at the hands of Aryna Sabalenka

© Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Under the lights in cool temperatures on Rod Laver Arena, Sabalenka swung her way to victory in an hour and 33 minutes, wresting a maiden Grand Slam final from her opponent’s grasp with brute power.

“I’m super happy that I was able to get this win,” said Sabalenka. “She’s an unbelievable player, she played really great tennis.”

Sabalenka, who claimed her 11th career title at the Adelaide International 1 three weeks ago, has now won 10 matches in a row, including a career-best 20 consecutive sets.

This contest was her 3rd win in as many meetings over Linette, but easily the tightest.

Her newfound calmness on court and her willingness to ‘become a little bit boring on court to reach my goals’ enabled her to come from a break down in the first set, and to close out a tense ending.

The 4th game of the first set proved key, after Linette flew out of the blocks with a clear counter-punching game plan and strong serving, while impatient errors flowed from Sabalenka’s racket.

With Linette serving at 2-1, 40-0, Sabalenka calmed her game down, and broke back for 2-2 with some patient point construction.

Despite all-out offence, Sabalenka found herself unable to perturb Linette as the Pole, who had easily absorbed the pace of powerful ball-strikers earlier this fortnight, displayed impeccable defence once again.

Linette, an expert counter-puncher, frustrated her opponent by redirecting blistering groundstrokes for down-the-line winners.

Serving to stay in the set at 5-6, Linette coughed up an untimely double-fault to find herself in a 0-30 hole before coming up with a string of fearless forehands to force the tiebreak.

A ruthless Sabalenka then upped the ante, striking groundstrokes that were roughly 10km/h faster than those she had delivered earlier in the set, and she dominated the breaker.

“I would say I didn’t start really well,” said Sabalenka. “In the tiebreak, I kind of find my rhythm, start trusting myself, start going for the shots.”

In the second set, Sabalenka raced out to a quick double-break lead, and it was Linette who blinked first, conceding a break under pressure from a particularly heavy Belarusian backhand.

A perfectly-placed approach backhand earned the 5th seed yet another for a 4-1 lead, when she escaped 3 break-back points, the 3rd with one of her 6 total aces, to hold for 5-1.

Linette fended off 3 match points in the next game as the Belarusian’s error count started to rise again, but Sabalenka served out the match at the first time of asking, converting her 4th match point with a solid one-two punch.

“She was moving really well, putting everything back,” Sabalenka said of Linette. “I felt like a little bit under pressure, which I expect[ed].”

The 24-year-old explained that her relatively muted celebration on reaching her first Grand Slam decider was because the job’s not done.

“There is still one more match to go,” she said. “Just happy that I made this next step. I know that I have to work for that title.”

Aryna Sabalenka (L) will face off against Elena Rybakina in Saturday's AO final.

© (L) Graham Denholm/Getty Images and (R) Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

In total, Sabalenka fired 33 winners to Linette’s 9, outweighing her 25 unforced errors, and was able to win 70% of first serve points, compared to her rival’s 59%.

“I was trying to [do] less screaming after bad points or errors,” she said. “I was just trying to hold myself, stay calm, just think about the next point.

“Actually, I’m not that boring, I think. I’m still screaming ‘C’mon’ and all that stuff. I don’t think it’s that boring to watch me. I hope so. Just less negative emotions.

“[After the first game,] probably before I would start screaming on everybody, feeling bad, starting to overhit balls. Today I was, like, OK, that’s happened, that’s fine. I’ll just keep working, keep trying, and I think I will find my rhythm.”

Linette is taking only positives from her first Grand Slam semi-final: “Really, it’s like point here and point there,” she said.

“That’s what we actually already spoke a little bit with my coach. It’s so nice that we actually said, ‘Maybe on this point I could have done this a little bit different’.

“That means we are really on a good track, like we have a really good structure of what I’m going to do on the court. Just a little bit one point here, one point there.

“That’s somewhere you want to be as a tennis player. We are really happy it’s working and just the beginning.”

In a final that will guarantee a brand new winner of the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, Sabalenka faces Wimbledon champ Rybakina, who outclassed two-time champion Victoria Azarenka earlier on Thursday night, with the Belarusian having won all 3 of their previous meetings in 3 sets: at Wuhan 2019, Abu Dhabi 2021 and Wimbledon 2021.

While the 5th seed has been unbeatable since landing Down Under, snapping up an Adelaide International title en route to a 9-match win streak, during which she has not dropped a set, Rybakina has calmly rolled through the draw, signalling an on-coming blockbuster.

“She’s an amazing player, she’s playing great tennis, super aggressive and she’s already got one Grand Slam so she, kind of, has this experience playing [a] final,” Sabalenka said of her Kazakh rival. “I’m really looking forward to this final.”

By reaching the final, Sabalenka is guaranteed to return to an equal-career high of World No 2.



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