Melbourne, Australia – What seemed so different, so daunting, even about trying to win a Grand Slam title Elena Rybakina A little over six months ago now comes naturally.
If you can win another match, you will add a championship at the Australian Open to the tournament you collected at Wimbledon.
Rybakina, 23, representing Kazakhstan, reached her second final in three Grand Slams by winning Victoria Azarenka 7-6(4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, indicating a rapid rally towards the top.
“Everything was new at Wimbledon. Now I more or less understand what to expect,” said Rybakina, after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to take her total tournament lead to 44.
That could come in handy on Saturday, when you face the No. 5 seed Ariana Sabalenka Belarus. Sabalenka, 24, reached her first Grand Slam title match by defeating an unseeded Magda Lynette 7-6(1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semi-final.
Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023 and has won all 20 sets she has played in this season.
More importantly, victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a slam semi-final after she was 0-3 at that point so far, losing every previous attempt 6-4 in the third set.
Rybakina and Sabalenka use a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hits at the baseline. Sabalenka is much less cautious, however, her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play evident against Linette, who had never before made it past the third round in 29 appearances with a major.
Sabalenka finished with a massive 33-9 advantage in winners but also racked up more unforced errors than Linette.
The key to both semi-finals, really, was the first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost her stamp on her hitting, which made things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead on hers. It wasn’t that every shot Sabalenka hit landed directly on the line, but it must have looked that way to Linette.
Rybakina, meanwhile, added to what was already an impressive run through a string of top competitors. Azarenka, the 2012 and 2013 Melbourne Park champion, joins the list of players eliminated by Rybakina over the past two weeks that includes the No. 1 spot. Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – Both major titles – 2022 Australian Open runner-up Daniel Collins.
“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been 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, delivering speeds of up to 117 mph, and stinging groundstrokes that she used to seemingly seal points at will. The performance was particularly noteworthy against returners and defenders as established on hard courts as Azarenka, former top seed and three-time US Open runner-up.
“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had many opportunities that I gave myself.”
Rybakina may be ranked 22nd in Melbourne, and 25th, but these numbers are not indicative of her talent and form. Rybakina didn’t get the usual bump from her title in July at Wimbledon, where no ranking points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus for invading Ukraine.
It’s been fresh and cool at Rod Laver Arena since Rybakina’s start against Azarenka, with the temperature dropping below 70 degrees. That would have played into the way the first set was as seedy as possible, with each player seeming to gain control of the ball and give it away just as quickly.
“I couldn’t play tennis so hard,” said Rybakina. “The ball wasn’t going very far.”
Rybakina’s occasional inconsistency was encapsulated in the first game. She started, ominously, with a double fault before being caught with the help of three aces.
Azarenka broke through to take a 3-2 lead on a full-stretch jump shot with both women hitting the net. But Rybakina broke right back then again to go up 5-3.
This allowed Rybakina to work the set, and it was a point from owning it at 40-30, but Azarenka conjured up a terrific forehand shot to pass that opportunity and ended up taking the match with a big backhand winner from Bilkent with a cry of “Let’s go!”
A foul-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka’s wide forehand to lock Mubadala with 11 shots. Rybakina broke in love with a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they continued to play for another 25 minutes, the result was never in doubt.
Sure enough, Rybakina stumbled again while trying to serve for the 5-2 win. No one expected Azarenka to leave so calmly. But a final break, helped by a double fault from Azarenka, 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 display in women’s tennis in the stands for the semi-finals.
“I want to say a big thank you from the players, because it’s incredible what you’ve done for us and the new generation,” said Rybakina. “It means a lot.”