The first-set tie-break said it all – Magda Linette lost it 7-1 and she had not done anything wrong. Until then it was toe to toe and anyone’s guess who would leave Rod Laver Arena with an appointment to see Elena Rybakinaon Saturday.
Aryna Sabalenka generally does not shift through the gears, mainly because she starts at full throttle and keeps her foot down for the entire match. But there was another, supersonic something or other she had kept in her back pocket for Thursday’s semi-final.
The motivation to bring it out at this moment could have been that she has made three slam semi-finals and thrice been beaten. It might have been that she had won all 18 sets she had played in 2023 and was not about to drop one now. Or it could simply be a manifestation of the new calm she says feels on the court – evident midway through the tie-break when she started her service motion before stopping to reset and then sent down an ace.
Whatever it was, the Belarusian fifth seed executed the cleanest tie-break of this Australian Open and then used it to propel herself all the way to a 7-6 (1), 6-2 victory that confirms she will play in her first major final.
“I didn’t start really well,” Sabalenka said. “Then in the tie-break I found my rhythm and just started trusting myself, started going for the shots. It was great tennis from me in the tie-break. I’m super happy that I was able to get this win.”
Linette, the unseeded 30-year-old who had finally found her place at the business end of a big tournament, had seen off her fair share of heavy hitters at Melbourne Park. Karolina Pliskova and Caroline Garcia bit the dust along her way and she made a good fist of Sabalenka’s powerhouse performance. The Pole’s defensive skills absorbed much of the barrage and her footwork allowed her to redirect what she had soaked up to the desired location, particularly from her backhand.
There were no real holes in her game, which meant she was either going to find some in Sabalenka’s or push her to another level. The odds were stacked in his opponent’s favor and the pre-match contrast in body language made for an interesting subplot. In the bowels of Rod Laver Arena, Sabalenka completed warm-up drills with a swiss ball and the look of a player loose and unperturbed about the moment of truth that awaited. Linette strode in with head slightly bowed, gaze fixed ahead, looking tense.
On the court, the initial exchanges did not match that picture. Linette began by breaking Sabalenka’s service game to love and then holding serve, by which point the latter had won a solitary point and racked up five unforced errors. Was Sabalenka too loose? Was Linette more focused than nervous? But Sabalenka held her nerve and found her range, breaking back to 2-2 before playing game for game until the tie-break.
She found her hunger in the second set, crunching some forehand winners down the line, dragging Linette off the court with one-two punches. Linette tried everything to stop the inevitable, moving well and trying a lovely chip for variety. She just ran out of ideas, forcing three break points while down 4-1 only to have them saved and then serving to stay in the match.
Sabalenka attempted to get it done too quickly, tried to go too big at the expense of accuracy and threw away two match points via unforced errors. After Linette held, she set about serving out the match, following an ace with another of those fearfully fast forehands she put down to “good genetics”.
It was a display befitting a game she has cleaned up well this past year. That includes her serve, which she will need against Rybakina, who overcame a resurgent Victoria Azarenka in the other semi-final.
“She’s an amazing player,” Sabalenka said of the Wimbledon champion. “She’s playing great tennis, super aggressive and she already got one grand slam so she has kind of had this experience playing the final. It’s going to be great. I’m really looking forward to this final.”