Australian OpenMatch report

Elena Rybakina reaches Australian Open final after bruising tussle with Azarenka

Managing the decisive moments better the Wimbledon champion defeated Belarusian 7-6(4), 6-3

Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina during her Australian Open semi-final win at Melbourne Park. Photograph: Getty Images

Seven short months ago, Elena Rybakina stood on Centre Court as she achieved one of her dreams and imagined what could follow. Her Wimbledon title was one of the ultimate achievements of her profession, a tremendous success, yet it told little about what would happen next. The recent years of tennis history, as players have struggled hard to follow up their first victories, made one thing clear: winning one major is hard enough.

It has not taken her long to back it up. On Thursday night, Rybakina took another enormous step forward in her career by following up her first triumph with another grand slam final run just two major events later.

In a nervous, bruising tussle against a third consecutive grand slam champion, Rybakina managed the decisive moments and defeated Victoria Azarenka 7-6(4), 6-3 to reach the Australian Open final for the first time.

Even as both players looked to take the initiative and dominate the baseline, this match was always going to be told in its contrasts. While Rybakina, the 22nd seed, has established herself as one of the best servers in the world, in her peak years 24th seed Azarenka was arguably the best returner in the world.


The challenge before both players was illustrated immediately. After Rybakina slammed down three aces in a row to secure her first hold, Azarenka landed the first break by deflecting returns off 114mph and 113mph serves to within centimetres of the baseline.

As Rybakina’s greater weight of shot, with the power she generates so easily, met Azarenka’s incessant depth and industriousness, Rybakina initially moved ahead. She held a set point at 5-3, which Azarenka snuffed out with a spectacular forehand down-the-line passing shot winner.

The tie-break was desperately tense, with Rybakina’s first serve deserting her as Azarenka sprayed unwanted unforced errors, but Rybakina held firm in the final exchanges, refusing to give up unforced errors as Azarenka sprayed a final forehand error wide.

With the first set secured, Rybakina visibly relaxed. She broke serve quickly in the second set after a flurry of nervous Azarenka errors and her own serve returned in full. Whenever Azarenka managed to generate a half chance, she slammed the door shut. As Azarenka’s final backhand struck the net, Rybakina celebrated another success with her trademark introversion, merely wiping her forehand with her wristband as she moved on.

In the months after her Wimbledon title, Rybakina vented her frustration when her life did not change nearly as much as she expected. She received no respect with court assignments and her low seeding, still outside of the top 20 due to the lack of points on offer at Wimbledon, meant that she received far more difficult draws than a reigning grand slam champion would otherwise get.

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The shift in her mentality has been clear throughout this tournament. She no longer cares. If she was capable of winning Wimbledon, she is also capable of tearing past anyone across the net. The consequence of that shift is evident in a run to the final that has been even more impressive than her first. Rybakina followed her third round win over last year’s finalist, Danielle Collins, by usurping the dominant world No 1, Iga Swiatek, and then blowing past former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

Against Azarenka, the 2012 and 2013 champion, in slower, cold night conditions, she could not summon the level of her previous rounds. No matter, Rybakina won, she demonstrated her mental toughness under pressure and she underlined that she has only just begun. – Guardian