Rybakina, Sabalenka, Set Up Blockbuster Australian Open Final

After prevailing in two straight-set semifinals, the pair will play for the title this Saturday.

By Laura Fay

If you said a year ago that Elena Rybakina would soon be standing on the precipice of a second Grand Slam title in nine months, it’s unlikely anyone would have believed you. 

Rybakina, 23, reached her second major final at the Australian Open off a straight-sets defeat of two-time champion Victoria Azarenka, downing the Russian 7–6 (4), 6–3. Despite not playing her best, Rybakina’s sheer talent and heavy flat groundstrokes simply overwhelmed her opponent. 

Rybakina’s rise to the top of the game has been a quiet one. While she’s been hanging around the upper echelons of the sport for a few years now, prevailing wisdom was that she didn’t have what it took to win a Slam. After a disappointing 2021 Olympic campaign, which saw Rybakina finish medal-less despite winning her first three matches with no sets dropped, she was largely considered not to have the fangs to compete at the highest level. 

Even her historic Wimbledon run was overshadowed by the popularity of her opponents (she beat heavily favored Ons Jabeur in the final) and questions about her nationality. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the tournament banned Russian and Belarussian players from participating. Rybakina, who was born in Moscow and represented Russia in her youth, has played for Kazakhstan since 2018. 

With her achievement overshadowed by the controversy and with no ranking points awarded for her victory, Rybakina’s seeding undersells her ability and subjects her to difficult draws. Her first match at this tournament was put on the unceremonious Court 13, and her path to the final included both last year’s Australian Open finalist, No. 13 Danielle Collins, and reigning world No. 1 Iga Świątek. After dispensing with both handily, Rybakina is here to force everyone to pay attention. 

“I guess it’s a motivation to win even more,” Rybakina said about her scheduling. “Maybe next time they’re going to put [my] first match somewhere else, not the Court 13.”

If Rybakina wants to clear the final hurdle and take home a trophy no one can dispute, she’ll have to go through Aryna Sabalenka. Sabalenka booked her spot for the final in a comprehensive 7–6 (1), 6–2 dismantling of unseeded Pole Magda Linette in just an hour and a half. 

While Sabalenka’s path to the final has been less glamorous than Rybakina’s (with her last two opponents being unseeded) she has slayed some personal demons along the way. Sabalenka has reached three previous Grand Slam semifinals and fallen in all of them in tight three-set matches. 

This year though, Sabalenka has been on another level down under. Of her ten matches in 2023, she hasn’t just gone unbeaten—she hasn’t even dropped a set. That record looked to be in peril against Linette, after being broken to love in the opening game, but unlike other semifinals, Sabalenka steeled herself and rallied. 

Her powerful flat groundstrokes broke Linette in the fourth game of the match and only got more aggressive as the match progressed. Her shots in the tiebreak were approximately 10 km/h faster than those in the rest of the set. She took the tiebreak and the first set. 

After Sabalenka rocked out to a 5–1 lead in the second set, Linette made one last stand, saving three match points and forcing Sabalenka back on serve. Sabalenka’s serve proved too potent, however, and she converted the first match point off her own racket. 

Sabalenka is now further into a major than she ever has been before, but the job isn’t finished yet. 

“There is still one more match to go,” she said in her post-match interview. “Just happy that I made this next step. I know that I have to work for that title.”

While both Sabalenka and Rybakina employ a similar brand of tennis, relying on aggressive serving and powerful groundstrokes to essentially knock their opponents off the court, they go about it in different ways. Sabalenka is known for her high-risk high-reward style of play, hugging the baseline and firing rockets with her serve. 

Rybakina’s specialty is her relentless consistency on serve, though that control faltered in her semifinal. While Rybakina’s level was clearly superior to Azarenka’s, she was more error-ridden than usual on Thursday. Against the ruthless Sabalenka, Rybakina will need to control her serve to perfection. If there’s anyone who can do it though, it’s Rybakina. 

Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina will meet in the Australian Open final on Saturday, January 28th at 3:30 a.m. EST/ 6:30 p.m. AEST on ESPN. 

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