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Elena Rybakina to face Aryna Sabalenka in Australian Open final

<i>Clive Brunskill/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images</i><br/>Elena Rybakina powered her way past two-time champion Victoria Azarenka to reach the Australian Open final
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
Elena Rybakina powered her way past two-time champion Victoria Azarenka to reach the Australian Open final

By Matias Grez, CNN

Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka will face off in Saturday’s Australian Open final after both women came through their respective semifinals in straight sets.

Rybakina powered her way past two-time champion Victoria Azarenka, winning 7-6 6-3 in just over an hour and 40 minutes, while Sabalenka ended the dream run of unseeded Pole Magda Linette to reach her first grand slam final at the fourth time of asking after a 7-6 6-2 victory.

The huge-hitting Rybakina has now made two of the last three grand slam finals after her victorious Wimbledon run last summer and, at just 23 years of age, is likely to be a force on the WTA Tour for many years to come.

When everything clicks, the Russian-born Kazakh’s game is almost unstoppable and a marvel to watch. Her ferocious serve and booming groundstrokes allow her to dictate points with ease, so long as she can maintain the consistency to go with the power.

The momentum swung back and forth in the opening set and the more experienced Azarenka looked as though she had the upper hand going into the tie break, but Rybakina found her serve when she needed it most to take a crucial lead.

The second set was a somewhat more straightforward affair, as Rybakina broke Azarenka three times en route to securing a place in her second grand slam final.

“I’m super happy and proud, with my team also because without them it would be difficult to be here,” Rybakina said in her post-match interview. “And really thank you [the crowd] a lot because it’s an incredible atmosphere. I’m super happy to be in the final and play one more time here.

“I’ve got a little bit of experience from Wimbledon, and I want to come on court and enjoy the moment and atmosphere because it’s amazing to play in front of you guys. We’ll see how it’s going to go — for sure, I’ll try my best. I’ll fight and, hopefully, I’m going to win.”

Huge hitting

Fifty-three percent of Rybakina’s serves at this tournament have been unreturned, per Eurosport, the highest number across both the men’s and women’s draws at this year’s Australian Open.

It’s become one of the most potent weapons on Tour, and after opening Thursday’s semifinal with a nervous double fault, Rybakina ripped off four unreturned serves — three of them aces — to close out the first game and stir up an excited murmur in the crowd.

These two women had met just once before on Tour, with Rybakina winning 6-3 6-4 at Indian Wells last year.

Rybakina has beaten former grand slam champions in consecutive matches to reach this stage — world No. 1 Iga Światek and then Jelena Ostapenko — and had to do so again to reach Saturday’s final.

Rybakina’s serve looked untouchable in the opening exchanges, but a masterclass in returning from Azarenka earned her a break to go 3-2 up — only for her opponent to break back immediately.

There was little to choose between these two players in what was a brilliant first set of tennis, as both women were hitting their groundstrokes with stunning power and accuracy.

But Rybakina looked to have found the decisive breakthrough, breaking Azarenka’s serve to go 5-3 up and give herself the chance to serve out the opening set.

However, the 2022 Wimbledon winner perhaps started to feel the magnitude of the occasion for the first time, as her first serve all of a sudden deserted her to allow Azarenka to break back at the first time of asking and quickly level the scores at 5-5.

Rybakina’s first-serve percentage, which had been as high as 75% to begin the set, had now plummeted to 48% and once again opened the door for Azarenka to break serve.

The world No. 25 is known for her relaxed demeanor — her famously understated celebration to winning Wimbledon last year making headlines around the world — but her frustration began to bubble over just slightly as she hit a ball into the ground in frustration after another missed serve.

It’s a credit to her mindset that managed she saved three break points from 0-40 down to make Azarenka have to serve to take the first set to a tie break.

Despite Rybakina’s coach doing little to help the tense situation, chastising her with an exasperated expression each time she missed a shot, she held firm in the tie break to win the opening set.

“Of course, they were nervous because they want me to perform well,” she said of her team after the match. “Today was a bit tougher for me. I couldn’t play aggressive tennis, the ball wasn’t going as much, but I tried my best to win.”

Rybakina found her first serve again in the second set and broke Azarenka twice to take a commanding 5-2 lead and give herself a chance to serve for the match.

However, nerves certainly looked as though they got the better of her and she tightened up as Azarenka stepped up her game to get one of those breaks of serve back.

Rybakina wasn’t to be denied for long, though, as she broke Azarenka’s serve for the third time in the set to book her place in Saturday’s final.

Battle of the big hitters

Saturday’s final looks set to be a mouthwatering clash between two of the biggest hitters on Tour and two players who simply overpowered their semifinal opponents.

After losing her three previous grand slam semifinals, there appeared to be added determination in Sabalenka’s eyes that this would be the night she would put an end to that run.

After a tense opening set, Sabalenka stepped up to a level that Linette could not match in the tie break and comfortably closed it out 7-1.

It was a trend that continued in a one-sided second set as Linette had no answer to Sabalenka’s relentless power.

“I’m super happy that I was able to get this win, shes an unbelievable player, she played great tennis,” Sabakalenka said in her post-match interview. “I’m just super happy right now.

“I would say I didn’t start really well and then, in the tie break, I found my rhythm and started trusting myself, started going for the shots and it was great tennis from me in the tie break.

“To be in the final of these kind of tournaments is amazing, to feel this atmosphere on these kinds of courts.”

Sabalenka and Linette exchanged early breaks of serve in what was a tense first set, as both players started the match feeling the pressure.

Linette, playing on the biggest stage of her career, was by no means overawed by the occasion and twice held serve — at 4-5 and 5-6 — to stay in the set and take it to a tie break.

She had done a good job so far of absorbing much of Sabalenka’s power, sometimes using it to fire back vicious groundstrokes of her own, but was eventually overwhelmed in the tie break.

Sabalenka seemed to find another gear to go into when it mattered most, her forehand in particular doing serious damage as she finally broke Linette’s resolve.

Linette managed to win just one point in a lopsided tie break as Sabalenka’s relentless power gave her a crucial one-set lead.

She then faced a stern test in her opening service game of the second set but, as she has done throughout this tournament, once again held firm to get on the scoreboard.

However, that would be as good as it would get for Linette in the second as Sabalenka maintained the level she found in the tie break to win four straight games and race into a 4-1 lead.

Linette did conjure up three break points in Sabalenka’s next service game, but the Belarusian slammed the door shut each time to move one game away from the final.

Credit to Linette, she continued to fight as she has done throughout this tournament and staved off three break points to force Sabalenka to serve for the match.

She did just that, after a nervous wobble at the start, to book the place in a grand slam final she has long craved.

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