Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka will do battle in a big-hitting Australian Open women’s final on Saturday.
In two similar semi-finals, Wimbledon champion Rybakina saw off Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4) 6-3 before Sabalenka reached her first grand slam singles final with a 7-6 (1) 6-2 victory over unseeded Pole Magda Linette.
The results mean a new women’s champion will be crowned at Melbourne Park, and both players were keen to stress that the job is not yet done.
“I’m happy, at the same time tired,” said Rybakina. “But I think it was a really good match. Different conditions today compared to other matches I played. I’m super happy to be in the final and ready to give everything I have left in one day.”
Sabalenka had fallen three times in grand slam semi-finals over the last two seasons but gave only a brief clenched fist after finally making it over the hurdle.
“There is still one more match to go,” said the Belarusian, who is yet to drop a set in 10 matches in 2023. “It’s good that I kind of break through in the semi-finals, but there is one more match to go. I just want to stay focused.”
While Linette is a fine player and did everything she could to deny Sabalenka a rhythm, this felt a bit like a contest between the fifth seed and herself.
One of the most outwardly emotional players on tour, she has credited a new commitment to a calmer mindset for her consistency so far this season.
The first game did not appear to bode well as the 24-year-old made three unforced errors to drop serve but she quickly recovered the deficit and from there began to play really well, finishing the set with a flawless tie-break.
“She played great tennis,” said Sabalenka. “I wasn’t feeling my rhythm quite well at the beginning. She was moving really well, putting everything back. I felt a little bit under pressure, which I expected.
“But then I started telling myself that I have to move a little bit better. I tried to focus on my movement. As I started focusing on my movement, I started feeling the rhythm better.
“After 3-3 or something, I started feeling much better. It was a little bit, not easier to play, but it was about the game, not about the nerves and all this stuff.”
This was a breakthrough grand slam at the age of 30 for Linette, and she said: “It’s really been so rewarding for all the hard work that we’ve done, for all the sacrifices, all these years on tour, so many grand slams.”
Rybakina’s biggest weapon, her serve, was slightly off key but she can power winners off the ground, too, and the Kazakh was too good for Azarenka.
She felt the benefit of having been in a semi-final before, saying: “I think because I knew what to expect. Everything was new at Wimbledon. Now I more or less understand what to expect.
“It’s nervous no matter what because it’s a final. Also semis, you’re 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 thinking what’s going to come or what’s going to happen around and so on.”
Azarenka was back in the Australian Open semi-finals for the first time since winning back-to-back titles in Melbourne in 2012 and 2013, and the Belarusian was left disappointed by her performance.
She fought back from 5-3 down in the first set, saving a set point, but played a poor tie-break and was unable to create any momentum in the second.
“Obviously I had quite a few chances that I gave myself,” said the 33-year-old. “Not converting them right now is difficult.
“I cannot really say I’m very happy that I played great tennis today, I feel like I didn’t really do that. I’m proud of myself how I fought and I tried, but tennis-wise I felt like it just wasn’t there, especially in the important moments.”
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