Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina will clash in what promises to be a bruising, big-hitting Australian Open final on Saturday after both won in straight sets in the last four.
Big-serving Wimbledon champion Rybakina defeated two-time Melbourne winner Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (7/4), 6-3 at a blustery and chilly Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne on Thursday.
Powerful Belarusian Sabalenka then marched into the championship match with a 7-6 (7/1), 6-2 win over unseeded Magda Linette.
The 24-year-old Sabalenka will be contesting her first Grand Slam final.
The fifth seed has battled nerves in big matches previously and worked with a sports psychologist, but said after dismissing the Pole that both were a thing of the past.
“I realised that nobody (other) than me will help, you know?” she told reporters.
“On the pre-season I spoke to my psychologist, saying: ‘I feel like I have to deal with that by myself because every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it’s not fixing my problem.’
“I just have to take this responsibility and I just have to deal with that.”
Whatever she is doing, it is working: Sabalenka has been in the form of her life since arriving in Australia.
She won the Adelaide International warm-up tournament and has now extended her unbeaten streak to 10 matches, not losing a single set in any of them.
And yet it was 30-year-old Linette, contesting her first major semi-final, who was out of the gate fastest, breaking to love in the opening game and holding for an early lead.
Sabalenka was being made to work hard and showed all her new-found patience to get back on terms with a break of her own, to love, for 2-2 and the set went to a tiebreak.
Sabalenka timed her moment perfectly to up the aggression, and the decibel level, racing to 4-0 with a scream.
An ace that barely clipped the line stretched it to 5-0 and she closed out comfortably after 51 minutes, having smacked 20 winners to just seven from Linette.
“I would say that I didn’t start really well,” admitted Sabalenka.
“And then on the tiebreak I kind of found my rhythm and just started trusting myself, started going for the shots. It was great tennis from me in the tiebreak.”
Sabalenka showed no sign of letting up in the second set, breaking Linette and with a scream of “Come on!” holding for a 3-1 advantage.
A second break took her within sight of the finish line, which she raced across in 1hr 33min.
- Missed opportunities -
Reigning Wimbledon champion Rybakina, 23, said she hoped she had made her watching family proud after another impressive display.
The Moscow-born Kazakh prevailed in 1hr 41min against the 2012 and 2013 champion Azarenka of Belarus to account for a third major winner in as many matches.
The 22nd seed Rybakina had already defeated reigning French and US Open champion Iga Swiatek in the fourth round and 2017 Roland Garros winner Jelena Ostapenko in the quarter-finals.
Rybakina said her semi-final triumph was even more special because she had her sister and parents all watching at Melbourne Park for the first time.
“I’m super happy that we can spend evenings together and they can watch me live,” said Rybakina, whose parents were not there to see her win Wimbledon last year.
“For sure it’s great for them. I didn’t even talk with them yet. I’m sure they’re happy. They don’t see me often playing live, so I think this time, it’s a big result already.
“No matter how I play in the final, I think they’re very proud and happy.”
Azarenka, 33, was left to rue missed opportunities as her dream of a third Australian Open crown dissolved.
“Right now especially it’s kind of hard to digest,” she said.
“I’m proud of myself how I fought and I tried.
“Tennis-wise I felt like I just wasn’t there, especially in the important moments when I kept creating those opportunities for me. Just couldn’t convert them.”
And after a tight first set, the Moscow-born 23-year-old stretched away to account for a third Grand Slam champion.
“I’m super happy to be in the final. Today it was a bit tougher for me because it was different conditions,” said Rybakina, who represents Kazakhstan.
“I couldn’t play really aggressive tennis. The ball was not going so much, but I’m happy that in the end I managed to win. I’ll try my best in the final of course.”
Rybakina won in straight sets when the pair played at Indian Wells last year, their only previous meeting.
Veteran Azarenka, 33, was largely on the back foot again against the grace and power of Rybakina, who was in her first Melbourne Park semi-final.
Rybakina reached the last four largely on the back of her powerful serving, having struck 35 aces in her five matches at Melbourne Park, more than any other player.
She started with a nervy double fault but soon was back in the groove, launching three booming aces in a row to secure the opening game.
Azarenka withstood an early assault from Rybakina’s heavy, deep groundstrokes to force the first break point, which she converted with a high volley, only for her opponent to strike straight back.
Now powering winners off both wings and utilising her wide reach, Rybakina broke a second time for 5-3.
Trying to close out, the Kazakh’s first serve deserted her. Azarenka saved a set point then created two chances of her own, converting the second.
At 5-5 Rybakina’s second double fault gave 24th seed Azarenka three break points.
Rybakina showed why she is already a Grand Slam champion by averting the crisis and sealing the game with her sixth ace.
In a tight tiebreak Azarenka went long at 4-5 to give Rybakina two set points. She needed only one to go ahead after exactly an hour of play.
The aces and winners kept coming at the start of the second set, Azarenka getting more frustrated as she was broken to love to go 2-1 down.
Two double faults from Azarenka then gave Rybakina another opportunity, which she took for 5-2 and a chance to serve for a place in the final.
Nerves crept in on Rybakina’s normally reliable serve and a double fault gifted Azarenka a chance to extend the contest, which she took with a backhand return winner.
Rybakina was not to be denied and broke again to reach her first Australian Open final.