Elena Rybakina pushed her way past two-time champion Victoria Azarenka on Thursday to reach the Australian Open final, winning 7-6 6-3 in just over an hour and 40 minutes on Thursday.
The huge punch Rybakina has now made it to two of the last three grand slam finals following her Wimbledon triumph last summer and, at just 23 years old, is likely to feature 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 thumping groundstrokes allow her to easily dictate points as long as she can maintain the consistency to go with the force.
Momentum swung back and forth in the opening set and the more experienced Azarenka looked like she had the upper hand in the tiebreak, but Rybakina found her serve when she needed it most to take a crucial lead.
The second set was a somewhat easier affair as Rybakina broke Azarenka three times on her way to securing a place in her second grand slam final.
“I’m super happy and proud, also with my team, because without them it would be difficult to be here,” Rybakina said in her post-match interview. “And thank you very much [the crowd] a lot because it’s an incredible atmosphere. I’m super happy to be in the finals and play here again.
“I have a little bit of experience from Wimbledon and I want to get on court and enjoy the moment and the atmosphere because it’s great to play for you. We’ll see how it goes, I’ll definitely do my best. I will fight and hopefully I will win.”
Fifty-three percent of Rybakina’s serves at this tournament have not been returned, according to Eurosport, the highest total in both the men’s and women’s draws at this year’s Australian Open.
It has become one of the Tour’s most powerful weapons, and after opening Thursday’s semi-final with a nervous double fault, Rybakina ripped four unreturned serves – three of them aces – to close out the first game and an excited to generate a buzz in the public.
These two women had only met once before on the Tour, with Rybakina winning 6-3 6-4 at Indian Wells last year.
Rybakina has beaten former grand slam champions in back-to-back matches to reach this podium – world No. 1 Iga Światek and then Jelena Ostapenko – and had to do so again to reach Saturday’s final.
Rybakina’s serve looked unassailable in the opening sessions, but a masterclass on Azarenka’s return earned her a break and went up 3-2 – only for her opponent to immediately break back.
There was little to choose between these two players in what was a brilliant first set of tennis as both women hit their groundstrokes with stunning power and accuracy.
But Rybakina seemed to have made the decisive breakthrough, breaking Azarenka’s serve to lead 5-3 and giving herself a chance to serve out the opening set.
However, the 2022 Wimbledon winner was perhaps first beginning to feel the magnitude of the occasion as her first serve suddenly let her down, allowing Azarenka to break back on first ask and quickly level the scores at 5 – 5.
Rybakina’s first-serve percentage, which was a whopping 75% at the start of the set, had now plummeted to 48%, once again opening the door for Azarenka to break serve.
The world No. 25 is known for her laid-back demeanor — her famously understated celebration of winning Wimbledon last year made headlines around the world — but her frustration started to bubble over a bit when she dropped a ball into the ground. batted out of frustration after another missed serve.
To a credit to her mindset, she managed to salvage three break points from 0-40 down to force Azarenka to serve to take the first set to a tiebreak.
Despite Rybakina’s coach doing little to help the tense situation, punishing her with an annoyed expression every time she missed a shot, she held on in the tiebreak to win the opening set.
“Of course they were nervous because they want me to perform well,” she said of her team after the game. “Today was a bit harder for me. I couldn’t play tennis aggressively, the ball didn’t go that often, but I did my best to win.”
Rybakina found her first serve again in the second set, breaking Azarenka twice to take a commanding 5-2 lead and give herself a chance to serve for the match.
However, the nerves certainly looked like they were getting the better of them and she tightened up as Azarenka stepped up her game to get one of those stoppages of service back.
Rybakina was not long in coming, however, as she broke Azarenka’s serve for the third time in the set to secure her place in Saturday’s final.