Australian Open 2023: Elena Rybakina, Aryna Sabalenka set up power battle
Two of the biggest hitters in the women's game will face off in the final of the Australian Open
Elena Rybakina began the 2023 Australian Open on the outside Court 13, an unquestionable downgrade for the reigning Wimbledon champion. She will, irrespective of the outcome, end it on the Rod Laver Arena on Saturday.
Aryna Sabalenka began the 2023 Australian Open as a thrice Grand Slam singles semi-finalist unable to press further, an unflattering CV for one of the most ferocious players on the women’s tour. She will, irrespective of the outcome, end it on the final day on Saturday.
It’s a statement from both to be one step from the title, in what promises to be a brutal battle of the power game that made their semi-finals strikingly similar straight-set affairs on Thursday.
Rybakina, the strong-serving Moscow-born Kazakh, swept past two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka 7-6(4), 6-3 for her third straight slay of a Slam champion at Melbourne Park after Iga Swiatek and Jelena Ostapenko. Make that two final shows of the last three Slams from the 23-year-old who is only reiterating why her triumph at last year’s Wimbledon, stripped of ranking points, was no fluke.
A couple of hours later, the tall Sabalenka of Belarus made short work of Poland’s Magda Linette, at 30 a first-time Slam finalist, 7-6(1), 6-2 in her continued charge that hasn’t seen her drop a set in the two weeks of the season-opening Slam. Make that a singles final appearance, at last and at least, after three stumbling shots at the last two US Open and the 2021 Wimbledon.
“I’m just super happy that I was able to get this win,” Sabalenka, 24, said on court.
Air-kissing her biceps when told her average forehand speed was up there with the men’s pros, the world No 5 thought she “actually hit really slow balls today”. It was, on a more serious note, echoed by Rybakina after her match, who reckoned her shots weren’t travelling as swiftly under the lights as it normally does in the baking sun. It could potentially be one of the decisive factors in the final.
“It was different and tougher conditions. I couldn’t play (my usual) aggressive tennis,” Rybakina, leading the tournament aces count for women, said of her contest against one of the better returners in Azarenka.
Rybakina kicked off her match with a double fault, then dusted it off with an unreturned serve and three straight aces. Talk of setting the tone early. While Rybakina started hot, Azarenka got the first strike and the break in the fifth game after winning a backhand slice and net duel. Rybakina though couldn’t be kept down for long. With the Kazakh calling the shots from the baseline and Azarenka not able to respond other than merely putting the ball on the other side of the court, Rybakina immediately levelled things up and broke Azarenka again for 5-3.
Suddenly, Rybakina lost her lethal first weapon serving for the set, and Azarenka found a brilliant forehand down the line passing winner facing set point. With Rybakina’s first serve percentage plummeting (she got 48% first serves in for the set), Azarenka managed to cling on and force a tiebreaker. That’s where the experienced Belarusian, largely compact from her end to the barrage from the other, got loose with those unforced errors and a double fault as Rybakina belatedly nudged ahead.
There would be no stopping her in the second set. Certainly not when she cracked a backhand return winner in the third game before breaking to love as Azarenka, the PSG fan, kicked the ball in frustration. For all her serving might, Rybakina also got 41 of the 49 return points in play, ensuring early and sustained pressure on Azarenka. Back-to-back double faults and a wild forehand later, Azarenka was broken again, in the serve and spirit.
Much like Linette was for the latter half of her semi-final with Sabalenka. In contrast to Rybakina, Sabalenka’s serve has been one of her biggest letdowns but with it holding just fine in Melbourne, the Russian’s power game could fully take over. And that, simply, was too much to handle for the Pole.
Linette began well with the early break but Sabalenka was back in it as soon as she got her shots going. The range and rhythm of her power game peaked in the tiebreaker, the Russian giving the Pole zero look-ins and just one point in it. Sabalenka’s dominance carried over to the second set, earning the break in the third game when Linette sent a backhand long and the double break soon after for a 4-1 cruise. The gulf between the two lay in the winners volume—Sabalenka had 33 to Linett’s nine.
Sabalenka knows that may not be the case come Saturday. “She is an amazing player,” Sabalenka said of Rybakina. “She is playing great tennis, super aggressive and already has the experience of a final.”
The Kazakh wants to use that experience from a little over six months ago in London to enjoy the moment this time in Melbourne. “I’ll try my best, I’ll fight and, hopefully, I’m going to win.”