Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina demolishes Victoria Azarenka
By Simon Briggs, Tennis Correspondent, in Melbourne
Two of the biggest servers in the game will go head to head in Saturday’s Australian Open final, with Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina looking to end Aryna Sabalenka’s extraordinary run of ten straight-sets victories this season.
Rybakina is slightly the faster on the radar gun, racking up a top speed of 121mph. But it is Sabalenka who possesses the greater power off the ground. The balls at this tournament have been accused of going flat after a couple of games. With these two, it might only take a couple of rallies.
The shape of Thursday night’s two semi-finals was almost identical. Both finalists had a hard time subduing their fleeter-footed, more mobile opponents in the opening set. But after coming through a tie-break, they accelerated away in the second to land a statement win.
Rybakina went first against Victoria Azarenka, a two-time champion here in 2012 and 2013 who has almost found her way back to the same level at the age of 33. If Rybakina made a slow start, it was mainly because her phenomenal cannon of a serve malfunctioned early on, with only 48 per cent of her first deliveries finding the court in the opening set.
Perhaps the surprising thing, though, was how strong Rybakina’s returns were. She has a tall, stilt-legged physique, a little reminiscent of 2021 Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova. Unlike Pliskova, though, she bends her knees and drives her whole body through the shot. Even in breezy conditions, her clean ball-striking was the difference in her 7-6, 6-3 victory.
Next came Sabalenka against the unheralded Magda Linette, a Polish scurrier who was filling the gap left by the early exit of her compatriot, world No1 Iga Swiatek. This was a true David v Goliath contest.
Sabalenka has the power and athleticism to be tennis’s apex predator, if only she can control her fiery temperament. And the way she swept through the tie-break by a 7-1 margin, striking four clean winners and three more shots that were all but unreturnable, had a leonine majesty. From there, the only thing that could threaten Sabalenka was her own nerves, as she saw three match points come and go. But she steeled herself to close out her 7-6, 6-2 win in an efficient 1hr 33min. She has yet to drop a set all season.
So it is that, only a matter of days after pro-Putin demonstrators tarnished the Australian Open, the women’s final will be contested by a Belarusian (Sabalenka) and a daughter of Moscow (Rybakina, even though she now plays under the Kazakh flag). Whoever wins, the geopolitical connections with the invasion of Ukraine will be hard to avoid.
Rybakina vs Azarenka, as it happened
Who will Rybakina play next?
She will face the winner of Magda Linette vs Aryna Sabalenka in the second semi-final.
And you can follow that match here.
More reaction from Rybakina
I got a lot of experience from Wimbledon. I want to come on court to enjoy the moment and atmosphere. It is incredible to play in front of you guys so thank you so much. I will fight and hopefully I will win.
I am super happy and proud of my team also, without them it would be difficult to be here. It is an incredible atmosphere and I am super happy to be in the finals and play one last time here.
Of course my team were nervous because they want me to perform well. It was tough for me, difficult conditions. I could not play so aggressive but I am happy that in the end I managed to win.
But I will try my best in the final of course.
Azarenka's level fell through the floor, first in the TB, but especially in the 2nd set. Her chances of winning the match were gone with the missed BH return at 5-5 30-40, where she let Rybakina off the hook, who again didn't serve well but still came through in straight sets
— Barry K (@Bartolo_Utd) January 26, 2023
Well it wasn't the best semi you'll see, but Elena Rybakina is once again into a major final after beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 6-3.
The Kazakh was better for longer stretches of the match while Azarenka's game faltered in the second set.#AusOpen
— Stephen Higgins (@crosscourtview) January 26, 2023
Elena Rybakina defeats a third Grand Slam champion in a row, beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6(4), 6-3.
The reigning Wimbledon champion, now an Australian Open finalist, will *finally* be ranked inside the top 10 (if Magda Linette doesn't make the final).
— The Tennis Podcast (@TennisPodcast) January 26, 2023
The winning moment for Rybakina
A brilliant performance 👏
Elena Rybakina is heading to the #AO2023 women's singles final!@wwos • @espn • @eurosport • @wowowtennis • #AusOpen pic.twitter.com/w7vEytvVdX
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 26, 2023
Rybakina moves through
There will be a first-time Australian Open women's singles champ after Rybakina overcomes Azarenka.
Not her cleanest match but she still hit 30 winners and a remarkable 89 per cent of returns in play
She now awaits Aryna Sabalenka or Magda Linette in the final.
Rybakina* 7-6 (4), 6-3 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Rybakina goes after Azarenka's second serve with her forehand and draws the error, 0-30.
Azarenka double fault, three match points. Big groans from the crowd.
Azarenka saves the first with a backhand winner down the line, 15-40. Azarenka backhand into the net.
GAME SET MATCH RYBAKINA!
Rybakina 7-6 (4), 5-3 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
Chance for Azarenka as Rybakina makes two unforced errors on the forehand side, 0-30.
The Wimbledon champion responds with a forehand winner but then hits a double fault to give Azarenka two break points.
Big serve from Rybakina and she puts away a forehand winner on the first break point.
141km/h backhand return winner down the line by Azarenka to break back.
Rybakina* 7-6 (4), 5-2 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Double fault by Azarenka, 15-15. Another double fault leads to groans from the crowd, 15-30.
The ball sits up for Rybakina on the forehand side but she narrowly puts it wide, 30-30.
Massive forehand winner from Rybakina catches the line, 30-40. Azarenka can't believe it.
Azarenka with a wild forehand that flies long. Rybakina breaks and will serve for the match next.
Latest update from Simon Briggs in Melbourne
Azarenka's body language was very purposeful early on but we're seeing more teapots and self-admonishment.
You would normally expect the fans to try to get behind the losing player in these situations, but with another semi-final still to come, they don't seem too fussed.
Rybakina 7-6 (4), 4-2 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
Great hustle by Rybakina to reach an Azarenka drop shot and flick a forehand winner up the line, 15-0. Azarenka forehand return long, 40-0.
Azarenka forehand return wide and Rybakina holds. Two games away from the final.
Rybakina* 7-6 (4), 3-2 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
More errors from the racket of Azarenka put her in trouble, 15-30. Backhand error from Azarenka, 15-40. She's up to 20 unforced errors now.
Azarenka saves the first with a forehand winner. And the second when Rybakina nets a forehand. That was a bad miss. Could be a match-turning miss.
Crucial hold for Azarenka as she finds her first serve to bail herself out of trouble. Missed opportunity for Rybakina though.
Rybakina 7-6 (4), 3-1 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
Rybakina volley winner to open the game, 15-0. Azarenka gets down low and wrong-foots Rybakina with a forehand winner, 15-30.
Back-to-back forehand errors from Azarenka, a let off Rybakina. Rybakina ace to hold and consolidate the break.
Rybakina* 7-6 (4), 2-1 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Rybakina backhand return winner to open the game, 0-15. Forehand by Azarenka goes long, 0-40. Three break points.
Deep backhand return by Rybakina rushes Azarenka again, who sends a forehand long.
Really poor game from Azarenka. Rybakina breaks.
Rybakina 7-6 (4), 1-1 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
Ace No 7 by Rybakina, 30-0. No 8 makes it 40-0. Deep backhand by Azarenka catches the baseline and rushes Rybakina into an error, 40-30.
Ace No 9 from Rybakina to hold.
Second set: Rybakina* 7-6 (4), 0-1 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Ace by Azarenka, 15-15. Followed by a double fault, 15-30. Rybakina goes for a forehand winner down the line on the run but just misses, 30-30.
Rybakina goes on the attack and pushes Azarenka into an error, break point.
Shot of the match from Azarenka. She desperately takes in the rally, Rybakina hits a good forehand approach shot but Azarenka responds with an even better cross-court running forehand winner.
Azarenka holds serve with an ace.
For someone still pretty inexperienced in these stages, I find myself having a lot of trust in Rybakina’s game when I watch her in these moments.
The weapons are there when she needs them most.
One set from the #AusOpen final.
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) January 26, 2023
I don't feel as though the #AusOpen final would be as good as this Rybakina Azarenka match
— Otis 👓 (@collegedude10) January 26, 2023
Azarenka has to get that ball out of the Rybakina strike zone.
— Craig Shapiro (@Shaptennispod) January 26, 2023
Latest update from Simon Briggs in Melbourne
Azarenka waggled her wrist after missing an early forehand in the tie-break, as if to suggest that she needs to loosen up. It didn't feel that way, watching her.
She played an excellent set, mixing her game up to defuse Rybakina's ferocious ball-strike. In the end, though, the power told.
Rybakina 7-6 (4) Azarenka
Azarenka drags a backhand wide, 5-2. Azarenka's game is unravelling.
Great angle from Azarenka as she whips a forehand into the corner, 5-3. Rybakina forehand long, 5-4. A wild shot that one.
Azarenka backhand long, 6-4. Two set points. Azarenka forehand into the tramlines, 7-4.
Rybakina 6-6 Azarenka
Rybakina first serve unreturned by Azarenka, 1-0. Azarenka forehand goes long, 2-0. Rybakina backhand into the net, 2-1.
Rybakina backhand into the net, 2-2. Rybakina pushes Azarenka wide with a forehand the Belarusian's reply is long, 3-2. Azarenka double fault, 4-2. She went far too big on that. Could be a decisive moment.
Rybakina* 6-6 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Pressure? What pressure? Azarenka holds to love easily to send this set into a tiebreak.
Nothing to separate these two so far but Azarenka is playing the better tennis right now.
Rybakina 6-5 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
All of a sudden Azarenka is happy to go toe-to-toe with Rybakina, who is struggling to find her first serve and those cheap points.
Azarenka forehand winner, 0-30. Rybakina double fault, 0-40. Three break points.
Rybakina saves the first when Azarenka's backhand goes wide. Dominant rally from Rybakina and she finishes with a forehand winner. Azarenka backhand return into the net off a Rybakina second serve. That was a bad miss.
Rybakina finishes with a flourish, hammering down her sixth ace. Her first serve percentage has gone from 75 per cent to 48. She will be thrilled to get through that game unscathed.
Pressure back on Azarenka.
Rybakina* 5-5 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Azarenka now serving to stay in the set. She hits her first double fault on the opening point.
But the 24th seeds drills a backhand winner down the line, 30-15. Rybakina barely moved for that.
Mis-hit on the backhand from Rybakina and the ball flies well wide, 40-30. Another framed backhand by Rybakina into the tramlines and Azarenka holds.
Rybakina 5-4 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
Good start to the game from Azarenka as she hits a backhand winner down the line. Azarenka goes on the attack and draws the backhand error from Rybakina.
Outrageous backhand drop volley by Rybakina on the angle, 15-30 Controlled the racket head expertly.
Shake of the head from Azarenka as she sees another forehand winner by Rybakina whistle past her.
Set point Rybakina after Azarenka nets a forehand. Rybakina comes forward and hits a decent forehand volley but she doesn't do enough and Azarenka makes a running forehand pass down the line.
Break point Azarenka after Rybakina strikes a forehand long. Saved by Rybakina with a 132km/h backhand winner.
Second break point for Azarenka after a backhand winner. Pressure gets to Rybakina and after nearly seven minutes she sends a backhand long.
Latest update from Simon Briggs in Melbourne
Unexpected moment just then where Azarenka was disappointed by a line-call and gave Hawk-Eye the finger!
Maybe she's one of those people who reckon AI will murder all humans.
Rybakina* 5-3 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Back to back forehand winners from Rybakina gives her two break points. Azarenka saves them both after finding her first serve and finishing the points with forehand winners of her own.
Another wonderful rally. Great point construction by Rybakina as she bullies Azarenka and finishes with a forehand winner.
Azarenka forehand into the net. Rybakina breaks and will serve for the set.
Rybakina 4-3 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
Normal service resumes for Rybakina on serve. She hits a fifth ace to move to 30-0 then two unreturned first serves allow her to hold to love.
Big-time tennis that.
Rybakina* 3-3 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Errors flowing from the racket of Rybakina at the moment. Azarenka has settled better and playing more solid tennis despite the difference in shot speed.
But Rybakina crushes a backhand winner into the corner, 30-30. Mis-hit forehand by Azarenka after a deep forehand by Rybakina, break point.
Rybakina gets a look at a second serve from Azarenka and blasts a forehand return down the line which is too hot for the Belarusian.
Latest update from Simon Briggs in Melbourne
Good evening from Melbourne. It's another cool and breezy one, very similar to last night's conditions for Djokovic v Rublev, but hopefully without the Russia-promoting fans. Rybakina has all the power here, but Azarenka is holding her own with the wiliness accumulated over more than a decade on the tour.
Rybakina 2-3 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
An opening for Azarenka after Rybakina nets a forehand, 15-30. Rybakina responds with an ace, 30-30.
'Lets go' says Azarenka after a great return and finishing the point with a forehand winner, break point.
Brilliant point. Rybakina is forced to come forward, Azarenka plays a passing shot down the line, Rybakina reaches it but can't do much with the ball and that gives Azarenka the chance to put away a simple volley for a winner.
Rybakina* 2-2 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Best shot of the match from Azarenka as she steps in and wrong-foots Rybakina with a backhand winner, 40-15.
Big first serve by Azarenka and Rybakina fails to make the return.
Azarenka looks sharp and soaking up the power.
Rybakina 2-1 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
Wow! 135km/h backhand winner from Rybakina, 15-0. Azarenka is trying to go toe-to-toe with Rybakina but hasn't found her range yet.
A forehand winner by Rybakina maintains her confident start.
Rybakina* 1-1 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
A feature of the match will be whether Azarenka can withstand the big groundstrokes of Rybakina.
A puff of the cheeks from Azarenka after Rybakina blasts a forehand winner into the corner, 15-15. Deep backhand return by Rybakina and Azarenka nets, 30-30.
Extra pace and power from Rybakina rushes Azarenka and draws an error, deuce.
First ace of the match from Azarenka. And the Belarusian holds when Rybakina's forehand goes wide.
First set: Elena Rybakina 1-0 Victoria Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
Nerves from Rybakina? She doubles faults on the opening point. Back-to-back aces make it 40-15.
And a third ace allows Rybakina to hold. The crowd seem very impressed.
Rybakina won the toss and will serve first. She will want to lay down a marker early on.
Here we go!
Azarenka, with her PSG short, comes onto the court first followed by Rybakina. A warm reception for both.
A place in Saturday's final is at stake!
If you were wondering why Azarenka has been wearing a PSG shirt...
[My son] Leo is extremely into football now. I call it football, he calls it soccer - we have this debate. He wants to play in Paris St Germain, that's his dream. I'm a soccer mom now and I love that. I'm obnoxious, like absolutely the most obnoxious.
It's a completely different emotion for me to support my son. I have no shame in screaming for him, like zero. But I'm very supportive. I want him to do well, I want him to achieve his dreams.
Rybakina on her powerful serve
I would say that I always served big, but for sure when I started to work with my coach, we did a lot of changes on the technique. Like this, I gained even more power.
Yeah, it's my weapon on the court, and of course we are trying to work on it. Yeah, it's always a lot to improve.
Elsewhere in Melbourne...
Tennis Australia has warned Novak Djokovic and his family not to promote political causes after Djokovic’s father Srdjan was seen on video posing with pro-Putin demonstrators at Melbourne Park.
The tournament was disrupted on Wednesday night by pro-Russian demonstrators who chanted “Russia, Serbia, Russia, Serbia” and held up a flag emblazoned with Putin’s face.
A video posted on YouTube shows Srdjan with the ringleader of the group on the steps of Rod Laver Arena, shortly after his son Novak had defeated Russia’s Andrey Rublev in straight sets.
Read more here.
Azarenka on Rybakina
She's powerful. Big serve. She's in the semi-final, so she's playing amazing. She had tough wins.
It's going to be a big challenge. I'm excited about that.
Women's semi-final day
Hello and welcome to coverage of the first women's semi-final of the Australian Open between Elena Rybakina and Victoria Azarenka.
It promises to be a big-hitting showdown between two women who refuses to concede ground to their opponents.
Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion has beaten world number one Iga Swiatek and Jelena Ostapenko on her way to the last four and has the tools to reach another grand slam final.
"I think of course I got all the experience at Wimbledon and it's helping me now this time here in Australia and I know what to expect," she said.
"I already did it once and of course I got confident that I can do it again. I did really good preparation with the team. I'm not really surprised with the results. I'm happy. I'm just hungry to work and improve more."
On the other side of the net is Azarenka, a two-time champion in Melbourne. Azarenka said dealing with feelings of anxiety had been crucial to her resurgence, with the 24th seed reaching just her second semi-final at any grand slam since 2016.
"I don't think you recognise it right away," she said. "I think it builds up until you hit a pretty bad spot where nothing kind of makes sense. You feel kind of lost.
"I was at the point where I couldn't find anything that I feel good about myself, not even one sentence. I broke a few rackets after my match in Ostrava (in October). That was a very tough moment for me.
"From then, I tried to take it more simple. I started with not trying to be positive, just trying to be neutral, not to go negative. Accepting the anxiety that I have. Accepting the fear that I have. Kind of working through it. That was step by step. I kept trying to go a little step forward, another challenge, another step forward."