The idea of an all-Belarus women’s singles final at the Australian Open fizzled on Thursday night in Melbourne, while the idea of Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka as giant intensified.
In a sport whose grand hodgepodge of contenders made it seem novel when No. 1 Iga Swiatek distanced herself up top in 2022, Rybakina seems intent upon neighboring Swiatek. Having dismissed Swiatek in the fourth round of this Australian Open, Rybakina has gone ahead and reached a second final in the last three Grand Slams, where she’ll face Sabalenka of Belarus, a top-five mainstay of recent years who’ll grace her first Grand Slam final.
Rybakina’s 7-6 (7-4), 6-3 win in the first semifinal Thursday in Melbourne not only ended the resurgent bid of 33-year-old two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, but also cemented Rybakina as a familiar force with that mighty serve and the clean, crisp beauty of those shots. That’s a further evolution from her breakthrough at Wimbledon last summer, when she won that title by introducing herself to everybody except the real tennis geeks who already knew her as a 23-year-old Russian who has played for Kazakhstan since mid-2018 when that country offered her support.
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“I’m super-happy and proud,” she said shyly to the audience in Rod Laver Arena and on TV around the world, even if she upheld her funny stoicism of her Wimbledon title by barely acknowledging the feat when Azarenka’s last backhand met the net. Rybakina gave two barely perceptible fist pumps before walking to shake hands with Azarenka, much as Sabalenka would halt for a brief grin when she saw off the 30-year-old surprise semifinalist Magda Linette of Poland by 7-6 (7-1), 6-2.
With that, Sabalenka, 24, pushed through her impediment of Grand Slam semifinals, following upon three-set losses at the 2021 Wimbledon (to Karolina Pliskova), the 2021 U.S. Open (to Leylah Fernandez) and the 2022 U.S. Open (to Swiatek). And with the earlier match, Rybakina, still 23, completed quite a trek through the recent majors: champion (Wimbledon), first round (U.S. Open, a 6-4, 6-4 loss to qualifier Clara Burel of France), and finalist at very least (Australian Open).
In that final, somebody with a ton of power will lose, just as Rybakina did barely — 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 — when the two of them collided in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2021. “She’s playing great tennis, super-aggressive,” Sabalenka said on court, “and she already got one Grand Slam.”
She did that, but she will bring along her oddball ranking of No. 25, which would be much higher except that players could not wring rankings points from Wimbledon last year, the WTA and ATP response to that tournament’s ban of Russian and Belarusian players over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Belarus’s support of same. “For sure,” she said on court, “I got a lot of experience from Wimbledon, and to be honest, I want to enjoy the moment and enjoy the atmosphere because it’s really amazing to play in front of you guys, and thank you so much.”
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That comment proved she notices the crowd; often, she’s understated enough that it seems she might not. The crowd this time around includes her sister, who did attend Wimbledon last year, and her parents, who are making their Grand Slam debut, deepening the meaning of her accomplishment.
They saw her marshal her power to overcome a lost set point against Azarenka, when Rybakina served at 5-3 and played a sharp point and sent a good volley into the corner, and Azarenka ran it down for a passing shot up the line. That could have addled some players, as could the love-40 Rybakina faced at 5-5, when she closed with five straight points for 6-5. She won the tiebreaker with a game more airtight than that of Azarenka, who had hoped for the kind of unusual dynamic Rafael Nadal pulled off last year. Nadal won the Australian 13 years after his previous title; Azarenka had won her two Australian titles in 2012 and 2013.
“It’s not a great feeling right now to digest,” the spirited veteran and five-time Slam finalist said in her sunglasses during her news conference, “but give me a couple hours and I can have probably a better outlook on this month in Australia.” She saw “a day that my game didn’t win” and, more to the crux of it, Rybakina’s game did, not least with the 76 percent of first-serve points won even when only 58 percent of her first serves landed. Her groundstrokes proved plenty fierce.
Where Rybakina tends to keep the eternal battle with the self internalized, it’s sometimes easy to spot that battle in Sabalenka when she plays. “I think that I lost those three semifinals,” she said in the run-up to the semifinal, “because I wasn’t really calm on court. I was like overdoing things. You know, like, I really wanted to get this Slam. I was rushing a lot. I was nervous a lot. Screaming, doing all this stuff, and right now I’m a little bit more calm on court. I really believe this was the only thing missing from my game.”
Factor in that calm, and look out even more. She has won 10 matches in a row, 20 sets in a row, a path she has mastered even at its steepest view: “The tiebreaker,” she said on court, “I kind of found my rhythm and just started trusting myself, going for the shots.” She decorated the key juncture of the match with winners, and fielded a question in the on-court interview about how her forehand speed rivals that of some men’s players. Briefly and jokingly she flexed her biceps, but then said, “I actually think I hit really slow balls today.” She did grin at that, those slow balls having wreaked 33 winners to Linette’s nine.