Australian Open: Rybakina to clash with Sabalenka in final

Elena Rybakina
Elena Rybakina in action against Victoria Azarenka. Photo: Reuters/Carl Recine

Elena Rybakina stormed to her first Australian Open final with a 7-6(4), 6-3 win over Victoria Azarenka on Thursday, wearing the twice champion down in a cagey first set before dominating to close out the match.

Wimbledon champion Rybakina will next meet fifth-seeded Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka.

Sabalenka surged into the final with a 7-6(1), 6-2 win over unseeded Pole Magda Linette to extend her unbeaten start to the year.

Adelaide champion Sabalenka has not dropped a set en route to 10 wins in 2023 but made a poor start in chilly conditions on Rod Laver Arena, dropping her serve to love in the opening game before breaking back with two blistering backhands.

Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka celebrates her win over Magda Linette. Photo: Reuters/Carl Recine

The fifth seed heaped the pressure on Linette's serve in the first-set tiebreak with her power and precision to pull away and wrapped it up when her opponent sent one long, before taking full control in the next set with an early break.

In the first semifinal, Rybakina held her nerve as the 24th-seeded Belarusian Azarenka foundered in a messy first set tiebreak then dropped serve twice to fall 5-2 behind in the second set.

The 22nd-seeded Rybakina was broken as she served for the set but Azarenka double-faulted to concede three match points in the next game, allowing the Kazakh to close out an emphatic win.

Rybakina and Azarenka
Elena Rybakina shakes hands with Victoria Azarenka after the match. Photo: Reuters/Hannah Mckay

"I'm super happy and proud. Without my team it would be difficult to be here so thanks a lot to them," Moscow-born Rybakina, Kazakhstan's first Grand Slam champion, said on court.

"It was an incredible atmosphere and I'm super happy to be in the final and play again here.

"It was difficult conditions, I couldn't play offensive tennis but I'm happy I managed to win."

Rybakina's serve has propelled her through the tournament, and she clubbed nine aces against Azarenka.

But she double-faulted on the first point of the match, raising a low gasp from the terraces.

They needn't have worried.

She thumped down three consecutive aces to hold then served out to love in her next effort.

After that start, it was a surprise when Azarenka picked her off at the net to break her in the fifth game.

Rybakina shrugged it off then broke Azarenka twice, repeatedly outrallying the powerful Belarusian.

Azarenka responded with her own firepower.

Running full tilt, she saved a set point with a forehand passing shot and put the pressure back on Rybakina.

The Kazakh cracked, hitting a backhand long, and Azarenka yelled "Let's go!" as she put the match back on serve.

Though failing to land a first serve 11 times in succession, Rybakina saved three break points at 5-5 before momentum shifted again when Azarenka tightened up in the tie-break.

Azarenka double-faulted to fall 4-2 behind, punched a backhand long to concede two set points, then slapped a forehand well wide as she failed to deal with Rybakina's aggression.

The errors piled up as Azarenka dropped serve again and she all but surrendered with a wild forehand to fall 5-2 behind.

Rybakina wobbled when serving out the match, a double-fault coughing up three break points and opening the door for Azarenka.

But any hopes of a comeback slipped away as Azarenka imploded on serve.

Though she saved a match point, her bid for a third title at Melbourne Park ended flatly, with a backhand hammered into the net, one of 27 unforced errors.

"It’s kind of hard to digest, obviously," a gloomy Azarenka told reporters, wearing sunglasses at her post-match media conference.

"Obviously I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.

"I cannot really say I'm really proud of how I played."

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