Elena Rybakina has had something to prove ever since she won Wimbledon and was denied her ranking points, and she could not have been more emphatic than by reaching the final of the Australian Open, seeded No 22, where she will take on Aryna Sabalenka on Saturday.
Oh, no, I didn't watch Wimbledon last year. I was feeling really bad about that, and I didn't watch Wimbledon at all. I mean, little bit the final just because I was working out in the gym. I saw a little bit. It was great tennis. Aryna Sabalenka
Wimbledon decided not to allow Russian or Belarusian players to compete and was punished for its stand against the illegal invasion by Russia in Ukraine.
Regardless of what happens next, the Russian-born Kazakh will rise to the Top 10 next week.
23-year-old Rybakina actually dropped in the rankings after her career-best accomplishment, unprotected and facing other top players too early in tournaments, but she has calmly and resolutely played her way back into contention.
Brimming with confidence heading into her second major final in the past 7 months, Rybakina has lost just one set during the fortnight, and her dominating serve has been the key factor in taking out two of the best returners in the women’s game.
Against World No 1 Iga Swiatek in the 4th-round, Rybakina was broken twice, but 32% of her first serves went unreturned, while facing a resurgent Victoria Azarenka in the semi-finals, she was broken 3 times but 36% of her first serves went unreturned.
This is a distinct advantage that has allowed the rangy Kazakh to move through matches efficiently and with minimal pressure, facing only 25 break points in her 6 wins.
Rybakina’s run to her first major title last summer at Wimbledon was entirely uncharted territory, having past the Round of 16 at a Grand Slam once.
She says her march to the final in Melbourne has been far easier, despite having to face down 3 consecutive major champions to do it.
“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.
“It’s nervous no matter what because it’s a final. Also semis, you always nervous before the match. But this time I think I was focusing more on the match, what I have to do, and maybe not to think what’s going to come or what’s going to happen around.”
Her serve carried Rybakina through Wimbledon and has similarly bamboozled her opponents in Australia, firing 44 aces so far and leading all the women in the field.
Her coach Stefano Vukov said: “We shortened the motion, biomechanically, tried to make it as ‘manly’ as possible, more explosive and powerful.
“Once you serve over 180 km/h consistently, it doesn’t even matter where you serve, you can see that the other players have trouble with it.
“We’ve seen it with Swiatek, and when the speed is connecting with precision, it is un-returnable.”
The 4th-round upset of Swiatek would not have occurred so early under standard seeding, but effectively blew open the draw.
It was the first meeting of their careers, pitting possibly the tour’s best server against its definite best returner, and Rybakina won out, 6-4 6-4.
Her game is all economy of movement, particularly with her backhand, which looks as if she has chiseled away all the excess movement and left only the bare essentials of the stroke, hitting it with enviably perfect timing.
When her serve isn’t quite clicking, as was the case against Azarenka, Rybakina has enough weaponry to still cause damage, even against the fabulous returner who was hoping to add to a pair of AO wins from a decade ago.
Rybakina gave two barely perceptible fist pumps before walking to shake hands with Azarenka.
“I’m super-happy and proud,” she said shyly to the audience in Rod Laver Arena and on TV around the world.
Her path ends on Saturday, in a final against Aryna Sabalenka, who has yet to drop a set. Winning that would put Rybakina at No 8 in the world, somewhere closer to where she belongs.
Sabalenka admits that not having been allowed to play Wimbledon, she didn’t watch The Championships last July.
“Oh, no, I didn’t watch Wimbledon last year,” the Belarusian said. “I was feeling really bad about that, and I didn’t watch Wimbledon at all. I mean, little bit the final just because I was working out in the gym. I saw a little bit. It was great tennis.”
Many see similarities between Sabalenka and Rybakina in terms of their playing styles, and the World No 5 was asked about it after her semi-final match against Magda Linette.
“I don’t know. Maybe you tell me what you think,” she said, laughing. “Probably. I think it’s just different.
“Like she play a little bit, like, flat, I maybe spin a little bit more. I think that’s the different. Well, it’s not going to make things easier.
“It’s a final. It’s not going to be easy match, you know? But I just happy that I made this, like, next step. I know that I have to work for that title.”
Sabalenka was hoping for an all-Belarusian final, but that fizzled on Thursday night and, instead, she faces one of the biggest hitters in the women’s game under the lights on Rod Laver Arena.
She, too, has now harnessed her raw power with control and patience, and it will be a contrast of Rybakina’s clean and flat ball-striking against Sabalenka’s muscled spin driving the ball through the court.
Heavy power got the better of flat ball-striking in their past 3 meetings, with all going the distance.
Sabalenka won their last meeting at 2021 Wimbledon, 6-3 4-6 6-3, while their last encounter on a hard court came at 2021 Abu Dhabi, where Sabalenka won, 6-4 4-6 6-3, en route to the title.
Twelve months ago, Sabalenka was tallying double-digit double-faults and scrapping through emotionally fraught wins and losses in Australia.
She has since reinvented herself, working with her coaches, sports psychologist and biomechanics specialist to re-hone her game, and has finally snapped her 0-3 record in Grand Slam semi-finals.
Into her first major final, she has won all 20 sets she contested this season, and the serve that haunted her last year has been broken just 6 times in 6 wins in Melbourne.
Of the 20 sets she has won, beginning with her title run in Adelaide, she dropped more than 4 games only 6 times.
The 24-year-old also has cut a noticeably calmer competitive façade since the season began, one that has allowed her to dig out of the toughest of holes to keep her perfect record.
“I was trying to [do] less screaming after some bad points or some errors,” Sabalenka said. “I was just trying to hold myself, stay calm, just think about the next point.
“I’m still screaming ‘c’mon’ and all that stuff. I don’t think it’s that boring to watch me. Just less negative emotions.”
As Sabalenka said in Adelaide, the competitive tiger still lives inside her, but she has learned to control it, and she stopped working with her sports psychologist during the pre-season to force herself to take charge.
“I realised that nobody, than me, will help,” Sabalenka said. “I spoke to my psychologist saying, like, ‘Listen, I feel like I have to deal with that by myself, because every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it’s not fixing my problem’.
“I just have to take this responsibility and I just have to deal with that.”
In that final, somebody with a ton of power will lose.
“She’s playing great tennis, super-aggressive,” Sabalenka said. “And she already got one Grand Slam.”
That is something the Belarusian is hungry to emulate.