AUS OPEN 2023: Elena Rybakina vs. Aryna Sabalenka in Saturday’s final, as both hold firm on Day 11

Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina celebrates victory against Belarus' Victoria Azarenka after the women's singles semi-final match on day eleven of the...

Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina will contest her second Major final in seven months when she battles first-time finalist Aryna Sabalenka on Saturday. Regardless of who wins, there will be a first-time Australian Open titlist – after they both upped their level in first set tiebreaks before ousting two-time champ Victoria Azarenka and Magda Linette respectively on Day 11.

Resilient rybakina outlasts azarenka

Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan and Victoria Azarenka embrace at the net in the Semifinals singles match during day 11 of the 2023 Australian Open at...
The pair shake hands after Rybakina’s straight-sets victory

Rybakina [22] bt. Azarenka [24] 7-6 (7-4), 6-3

  • Azarenka understandably left unsatisfied by her display but ends tournament rising eight places to world no. 16, but achieves best Major result since US Open 2020 final
  • Reigning Wimbledon champion Rybakina, not rewarded with ranking points after SW19’s decision to ban Russian players, is into world’s top 10 for first time after win
  • Got a lot of experience from Wimbledon, I want to come on court and enjoy the moment. It’s really amazing to play in-front of you guys so thank you, we’ll see how it’s gonna go. I’ll try my best, fight and hopefully gonna win,” Rybakina on Saturday’s final

Contrasting holds by both to start the match rather told the story: Elena Rybakina’s first point dropped on serve was a double-fault, while Victoria Azarenka found herself close to being broken in the subsequent game.

They exchanged breaks in the fourth and fifth game, Rybakina quickly securing revenge after being undone by a net cord break point down during another of their pulsating rallies.

Maintaining shot depth was crucial for both, but Azarenka was left perplexed by a rally ball catching the outside edge of the baseline. Rybakina might’ve struggled on serve, but knew Vika was still reeling from being broken back and soon was 5-3 up after some big shot-making.

Azarenka saved set point shortly afterwards with a forehand passing winner and produced some of her best ball-striking of the match to evade danger in that game.

She was muttering positive affirmations to herself when receiving at 5-5, all the while keeping pressure on the Kazakh – who double-faulted as the camera panned to her player box, with coach Stefano Vukov telling her not to rush between serves… or that would happen.

She proceeded to save a trio of break points, and soon enough they were into a first set tiebreak.

After an early back-and-forth, Azarenka overcooked a rally ball before double-faulting to go 4-2 down. The crowd tried their best to lift her, as she looked increasingly downbeat. Another unforced error followed, and 25 minutes after the first, Rybakina had two more set points.

Rybakina pulled the two-time champion left, then right with powerful backhand groundstrokes, and soon the pressure told. Azarenka saved a break point to start set two, but was 0-30 down on her next service game without warning. This was ultimately a jarring theme throughout.

Another unforced error gave the 23-year-old triple break point and she wasn’t going to relinquish that position. Rybakina consolidated the break, before Azarenka again had to save break points to avoid an ominous 4-1 hole – errors continuing to spill from her racquet.

Victoria Azarenka reacts in the Semifinal singles match against Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan during day 11 of the 2023 Australian Open at Melbourne...

She did so, before Rybakina raced to another love-hold – her fourth of the match – flipping the onus back onto the Belarusian.

She seemed more distracted and two double-faults later, Rybakina revelled in the freedom those cheap points gave her – crushing a pair of forehands.

One whizzed narrowly long, while the other caught the back edge of the baseline before another error gave her the chance to serve for a place in Saturday’s final.

Azarenka responded well in the subsequent game, but was quickly down 0-40 and facing three match points.

The writing was already on the wall and soon enough, Rybakina was celebrating a morale-boosting win over a two-time champion who wilted after losing the first set tiebreak.

“I’m super happy, proud with my team also – without them it’d be difficult to be here – it’s an incredible atmosphere, happy to play one more time here. Today was tough, difficult conditions and I couldn’t play that aggressively.”

Sabalenka overpowers spirited Linette display

Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka celebrates victory against Poland's Magda Linette during their women's singles semi-final match on day eleven of the...
Persistence: After three Slam semi-final losses in two years, Sabalenka will play her first Major final

Sabalenka [5] bt. Linette 7-6 (7-1), 6-2

  • Linette rises to new career-high world no. 22 after achieving her career-best Major result in 30th Major tournament appearance
  • Sabalenka rises to world no. 2, above Jabeur and Pegula, while making her first Major final at the fourth time of asking
  • She’s an amazing player and has already had this experience at Wimbledon, it’s gonna be a great battle and I’m looking forward to it,” the 24-year-old on facing Rybakina next

It feels fitting then, that the Wimbledon titlist will face a first-time finalist in Aryna Sabalenka, after her 7-6 (7-1), 6-2 win over Magda Linette in the evening’s subsequent semifinal.

Linette had the luxury of a love-hold to consolidate early on, though you could sense Sabalenka starting to find her spots after crushing a forehand up-the-line winner in the third game.

She rallied from 0-40 in the Pole’s next service game, firing a crosscourt forehand winner to give herself a break back point – more depth and continued aggression saw them level again at 2-2.

Sabalenka showed great shot defence, 15-30 down on serve, to redirect pressure back onto the 30-year-old and eventually hold.

Linette was doing well to extend their rallies, making sure Sabalenka didn’t have many free points on an evening where her first serve – much like Rybakina – was found wanting early on.

A backhand into the net and double-fault meant Linette was trailing on serve to stay in set one, but rallied well to force a tiebreak. Sabalenka started it aggressively, served well and was swiftly ahead 6-0. With half-a-dozen set points to save, it was far too big a deficit for Magda to overturn.

Poland's Magda Linette walks off the court after losing against Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka in the women's singles semi-final match on day eleven of the...

A graphic appeared on screen after Linette held her serve to start set two, emphasising just how much harder she was having to work to stay competitive with Sabalenka. Like many who play the Belarusian, she was ground down by the consistent pressure and soon broken once more.

Any short rally balls were punished with powerful groundstrokes, second serves pounced upon and she showed deft touch when called upon in close, with a few approach shots and slices too.

She saved two break points for a 5-1 lead, before opening up the court beautifully to set up two match points on the Pole’s serve. They weren’t taken as she reeled off five unforced errors herself, but had an opportunity to serve for a place in her first Major final, up 5-2.

A 187km/h ace down the t gave her another chance to close, before another big first serve set up a forehand winner to finish.

“Super happy, thanks for staying late tonight to support us, atmosphere was unbelievable. I didn’t start really well, in the tiebreak I found my rhythm and started trusting myself, going for my shots, some great tennis [during that period].”

It’ll be interesting to see how Linette’s progression continues over the season, as there will be an onus on her to back up this career-best result and justify herself as a late bloomer – rather than a beneficiary of an easier draw and some Alize Cornet-style upsets along the way.

She had vociferous support from Polish fans, who this time last week would’ve expected to be cheering for her compatriot – world no. 1 Iga Swiatek – at this stage, like they were last season.

Instead, they would’ve been pleasantly surprised by the 30-year-old who has built up results in recent months, largely in team-centric tournaments for Poland (Billie Jean King, United Cup).

It’s easy to forget she led by a set before losing to Linda Fruhvirtova in the Chennai final, less than three weeks after her US Open R1 defeat by Pliskova in a deciding set ten-point tiebreak.

The big question is whether she can build on this latest success or whether that was her once-in-a-career opportunity at a Major? We’ll wait and see, but there are plenty of positives.

Just three days left to go at this year’s Australian Open, with men’s semi-finals day tomorrow and more to come, so be sure to stay tuned — for the latest coverage.

Picture source: Getty Images, quotes via Eurosport broadcast unless stated otherwise


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