Rybakina tops Azarenka to make Australian Open women’s final

Sports

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina reached her second final in the past three Grand Slam tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at the Australian Open on Thursday.

Rybakina added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, joined a list of players eliminated by Rybakina over the past two weeks that includes No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko — both owners of major titles — and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

As usual, Rybakina did it with her powerful serve, delivering it at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and accumulating nine aces Thursday to bring her total to a tournament-high 44, and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will. Her performance in the semifinals was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

In Saturday’s final, Rybakina will take on either No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus or unseeded Magda Linette of Poland. Sabalenka took a 9-0 mark in 2023 into Thursday’s second semifinal, while Linette made it to that stage of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in 30 appearances.

“For sure, I got a lot of experience from Wimbledon and, to be honest, I just want to come on court and really enjoy the moment, enjoy the atmosphere,” Rybakina said, looking ahead to Saturday.

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are quite misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow, but she has represented Kazakhstan since 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That could have played a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand — and then ceding it just as quickly.

“I couldn’t play really aggressive tennis,” Rybakina said. “The ball wasn’t going so much.”

Rybakina’s occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

That allowed Rybakina to serve for the set, and she was a point from owning it at 40-30. But Azarenka conjured up a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot to erase that chance, and wound up taking the game with a big backhand winner she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set now did belong to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they would continue to play for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

Billie Jean King and six other members of the trailblazing “Original 9” group of Hall of Famers whose $1 contracts more than a half-century ago paved the way for the millions now offered in women’s tennis were in the stands for the semifinals.

“I want to say a big ‘Thank you’ from the players, because it’s unbelievable what you’ve done for us, for the new generation,” Rybakina said. “It means a lot.”

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