A first-time Australian Open champion will be crowned on Saturday night after the powerful pair of Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka won through to the final.
Rybakina, the reigning Wimbledon champion, was too good for two-time Melbourne Park winner Victoria Azarenka 7-6(4) 6-3, as she hit average serve speeds a remarkable 10 km/h faster than Serena Williams on her run to the 2017 title.
Then it was Sabalenka, a three-time slam semi-finalist who has always threatened to take over the sport with her immense talent but fallen apart at critical moments, who downed unseeded Pole Magda Linette 7-6(1) 6-2.
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SABALENKA POWERS INTO FIRST SLAM FINAL
Aryna Sabalenka has extended her winning streak to 10 matches and 20 sets, storming into the Australian Open final, 7-6(1) 6-2.
Sabalenka was broken to love in the opening game of the match, but recovered brilliantly to defeat 30-year-old Pole Magda Linette, who had never previously been beyond the third round of a major.
It was a powerful performance from Sabalenka, with the fifth seed now into her first grand slam final after falling in her three previous semi finals. Sabalenka is now guaranteed to move up to world No.2 as a result and will face Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in the final.
In their three previous matches, Sabalenka has prevailed in a deciding set.
With Linette’s loss, Rybakina will now make her top-10 debut regardless of the result in the final.
Sabalenka’s serve abandoned her during the Australian summer last year, but she has served impeccably throughout this year’s tournament and did so again on Thursday night, broken only once (the opening game).
Linette battled admirably in the opening set and continued to press on Sabalenka’s serve in the second, but ultimately was out-powered by her higher-ranked opponent in just over an hour and a half.
LINETTE v SABALENKA – LIVE MATCH REPORT
In a stunning start to the match, Linette broke Sabalenka to love in the opening game.
She then held serve easily for 2-0 before Sabalenka eventually held serve despite another challenge from the Pole, and then broke to get things back even.
The set continued evenly from there, with Linette – a 200-1 chance to win the tournament pre-event – playing right up to Sabalenka’s level in her bid to knock off a fifth consecutive seed.
Sabalenka threatened to pinch the set at 6-5, getting to 0-30, before Linette forced a tiebreak – with a remarkably fortunate net cord on game point.
But the tiebreak came and went quickly, Sabalenka earning two early mini-breaks to take control and eventually winning it 7-6(1).
“I don’t think I’ve seen a tiebreaker this clean yet during this Australian Open,” Alicia Molik said on Nine.
Sabalenka’s power earned her the first break chance of the second set at 1-1, and Linette cracked under the pressure with an error to hand the No.5 seed a solid advantage.
Things were beginning to fall apart for Linette, down 0-40 in her next service game, and a clever Sabalenka slice wrong-footed her to give the favourite a 4-1 lead.
With a slither of hope at getting back into the match, Linette got to 15-40 in the ensuing game, but missed both break chances.
She quickly earned another but it was gone after Sabalenka’s fifth ace of the night, at which point the match felt effectively over – though Linette did save three match points.
NEXT BIG THING CLAIMS SPOT IN AO FINAL
Elena Rybakina is into her second major final in less than a year, defeating Victoria Azarenka in the Australian Open semifinals.
Rybakina, the reigning Wimbledon champion who infamously began her Melbourne Park campaign on Court 13, was tested but ultimately proved too good for two-time champion Azarenka on Rod Laver Arena.
The 23-year-old will face the winner of Aryna Sabalenka in the final, which will be her second major final in her last three grand slam appearances.
Several breaks of serve were exchanged in the opening set, but Rybakina ultimately prevailed in a tiebreak.
After the one-hour opening set, Rybakina went up a double break in the second for 5-2 and eventually closed out the set and the match 6-3 in just over an hour and 40 minutes.
It draws Azarenka’s tournament to a close, which was her most successful since reaching the final of the US Open in 2020. Azarenka will also break back into the top 20 as a result of her semifinal run.
Rybakina’s win was her third straight over a former grand slam winner, having already defeated top seed Iga Swiatek and former French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko en route to the final.
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RYBAKINA def AZARENKA – LIVE MATCH REPORT
Rybakina double-faulted on the opening point of the match, yet it clearly didn’t put her off, as she produced an unreturnable serve and then three aces to easily hold.
“Rybakina’s serving so well. We know Azarenka loves to return. But this is, for me, the best serve on tour at the moment,” Jelena Dokic said on Nine.
The problem for the Kazakh was if her first serve didn’t land – it allowed Azarenka, one of the tour’s best returners, to strike. The Belarusian earned a break point at 30-40 and 2-2, and converted it well after a tricky rally at the net.
But she got frustrated after a tight line call at 30-30 – asking for a pointless review, given computers make all the calls now – and then after failing to get her first serve in, Rybakina capitalised with her power for the break-back.
Her power was once again on display to earn two break points two games later, but Azarenka kept Rybakina moving to limit her ability to use it, and saved both. However it was an Azarenka error that cost her two points later as Rybakina broke for 5-3 and the chance to serve out the set.
Azarenka got to 0-30 in the critical next game but had to save set point four points later; she did just that with a brilliant, on-the-move down-the-line forehand.
Getting a look at the second serve allowed Azarenka to earn a break-back point; there she got another look but Rybakina ripped a backhand for a winner. Another break chance soon came and Azarenka’s determination got her back in the set 5-4 on serve.
The Kazakh’s serve was beginning to fall apart – remarkably missing 10 first serves in a row, including a double-fault giving Azarenka 0-40.
Yet in a critical run of play, even without her biggest weapon Rybakina saved all three break points, the last when Azarenka bungled a second serve return as she found the net. Then an ace delivered the 6-5 hold, though Azarenka recovered to hold to love and force a tiebreak.
Rybakina took the early mini-break in the tiebreak but on a winnable point at 2-1 found the net to hand it back.
Both women were wobbling with five consecutive mini-breaks, giving Rybakina two set points 24 minutes after her first. She only needed one more, with a sixth consecutive point lost on serve putting the Wimbledon champion up 7-6(4) after an hour.
Azarenka was forced to save a break point in the opening game of the second set, doing so with a wicked cross-court forehand winner before holding.
But she was under much more pressure in her next service game, falling down 0-40 and giving Rybakina a look at the second serve. An unforced error saw the Kazakh up a break at 2-1.
Azarenka needed a break, but instead her own service games continued to be the home of drama. At 3-1, Rybakina had a “virtual match point” when she earned two more break points, per Jim Courier on Nine, but at 30-40 sent a very vulnerable ball right into the net.
Then at 4-2, consecutive Azarenka double-faults led to another break point, and a bad error handed Rybakina the comfortable break – and a chance to serve her way into the final.
Trying to stay in the tournament at 2-5, Azarenka had two break-back points at 15-40. A massive first serve saved one, but getting a look at the second allowed Azarenka to fire back a return winner. One break was saved.
Yet once again Azarenka’s service games proved her downfall, as a double-fault left her at 0-40 and facing three match points. She could only save one.
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SEMI FINALS PREVIEW
Victoria Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka were attempting to set up an all-Belarusian final at the Australian Open, and in doing so give organisers a headache.
There were major complaints after the match, bizarrely scheduled half an hour later than the typical 7pm start time, took an extra 15 minutes to get on court.
A performance from a musical cast then a tribute to tennis’ Original 9, who helped launch the WTA Tour, meant players didn’t get onto Rod Laver Arena until after 7:30pm (when the match was scheduled to begin) and didn’t play a point until 7:45pm.
With two women’s matches tonight, it drew immediate fears the night would run past midnight. Last year’s semi-finals were both relatively simple two-setters yet play didn’t conclude until close to 11pm.
The Times’ Stuart Fraser wrote: “Starting two women’s semi-finals tonight from 19:30 is also asking for trouble, IMO.”
Rybakina won in straight sets but finished at around 9:30pm.
An Azarenka-Sabalenka final would’ve posed a challenge for organisers of the first Grand Slam of the year.
Players from Russia and Belarus are competing at the Australian Open as independents under a neutral white flag because of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The flags of Russia and Belarus – a key Moscow ally – are banned at Melbourne Park.
Moscow-born Kazakh Rybakina helped organisers avoid the awkward issue, though her history is controversial itself given her adulthood switch to a new flag.
Sabalenka is the highest-ranked player left in the women’s draw at fifth in the world and is favourite to win her first Grand Slam.
But she will be wary of 45th-ranked Linette, who has already accounted for four seeds on her surprise journey into the last four.
– with AFP
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SPECIAL Ks 2.0? AUSSIE WILDCARDS INTO THE FINAL
A year after Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis made a stunning run to the men’s doubles title at Melbourne Park, Jason Kubler and Rinky Hijikata are threatening to do the same.
Fresh off an upset of top seeds Wesley Koolhof and Neal Skupski, the Australian wildcard pairing took down eighth seeds Horacio Zeballos and Marcel Granollers.
On their way to winning the opening set at Rod Laver Arena, Kubler produced a remarkable play, hitting a ball from the wrong side of the net.
The ball had bounced on Kubler’s side but then spun backwards towards the net (yet outside of it), allowing the Aussie to run past the ballkid and smash it from the Zeballos and Granollers side of the net.
“That’s one of the first shots I’ve seen in that regard, from Kubler – that was quite interesting,” Geoff Masters said on commentary.
“He is allowed to come around the net post there, as long as he doesn’t encroach onto the playing surface of the other team, so that’s quite legal.
“The ball has bounced on the correct side first, he’s allowed to come forward, as long as he doesn’t come onto the other playing surface. It was quite awkward in the end.”
After a break in the opening game of the second set, plus a double break late on, the Aussie pair served it out to win 6-4 6-2.
Asked whether they were expecting anything like this, Hijikata told Todd Woodbridge: “No, I was still pretty bummed about my singles match to be honest! But, yeah, I guess, wow, we’ll take it for sure.”
His teammate Kubler added: “Who would have thought, who would have thought. We both returned unbelievable. If any watched the match yesterday they saw Rinky lacing them, I was happy to do my part today.”
But the pair don’t exactly think teamwork is the key to their success.
“It’s funny because at some stages we’re just yelling at each other. I don’t know what he’s saying, he doesn’t know what I’m saying, he doesn’t know what I’m saying we’re just yelling,” Kubler said.
“There’s happens of energy and we both play better when there’s more energy. We’ll keep it going. I don’t know what the leader is but we’re doing pretty well right now.”
Kubler made the finals of last year’s Australian Open mixed doubles, partnering with Jamiee Fourlis but losing to veterans Kristina Mladenovic and Ivan Dodig.
The Aussies will face Monaco’s Hugo Nys and Poland’s Jan Zielinski in the final.
AUSTRALIAN OPEN DAY 11 – ORDER OF PLAY (All times AEDT)
Rod Laver Arena
Rinky Hijikata and Jason Kubler (AUS) def  Marcel Granollers (ESP) and Horatio Zeballos (ARG), 6-4 6-2
Night session from 7:30pm
 Elena Rybakina (KAZ) def  Victoria Azarenka (BLR) 7-6(4) 6-3
 Aryna Sabalenka (BLR) def Magda Linette (POL) 7-6(1) 6-2
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