MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.
If she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.
Rybakina, 23, who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top.
“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”
That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka, 24, reached her first Grand Slam title match by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.
Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023 and has won all 20 sets she has contested this season.
More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semifinal after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt 6-4 in the third set.
Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.
Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners but also compiled more unforced errors than Linette.
The key to both semifinals, really, was a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.
Rybakina, meanwhile, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, joined a list of players eliminated by Rybakina over the past two weeks that includes No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko — both owners of major titles — and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.
“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”
As usual, Rybakina did it with her powerful serve, delivering it at up to 117 mph, and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will. The performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the US Open.
“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”
Rybakina might be seeded 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked 25th, but those numbers are not indicative of her talent and form. Rybakina did not get the usual bump from her title in July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.
It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees. That could have played a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand and ceding it just as quickly.
“I couldn’t play really aggressive tennis,” Rybakina said. “The ball wasn’t going so much.”
Rybakina’s occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the first game. She began, inauspiciously, with a double fault before holding with the help of three aces.
Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back and then once more to go up 5-3.
That allowed Rybakina to serve for the set, and she was a point from owning it at 40-30, but Azarenka conjured up a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot to erase that chance and wound up taking the game with a big backhand winner she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”
A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange. Rybakina broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they would continue to play for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.
Sure, Rybakina again faltered while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.
“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”
Billie Jean King and six other members of the trailblazing “Original 9” group of Hall of Famers whose $1 contracts more than a half-century ago paved the way for the millions now offered in women’s tennis were in the stands for the semifinals.
“I want to say a big ‘thank you’ from the players, because it’s unbelievable what you’ve done for us, for the new generation,” Rybakina said. “It means a lot.”