Elena Rybakina powered her way past two-time champion Victoria Azarenka to reach the Australian Open final, winning 7-6 6-3 in just over an hour and 40 minutes on Thursday.
The huge-hitting Rybakina has now made two of the last three grand slam finals after her victorious Wimbledon run last summer and, at just 23 years of age, is likely to be a force on the WTA Tour for many years to come.
When everything clicks, the Russian-born Kazakh’s game is almost unstoppable and a marvel to watch. Her ferocious serve and booming groundstrokes allow her to dictate points with ease, so long as she can maintain the consistency to go with the power.
The momentum swung back and forth in the opening set and the more experienced Azarenka looked as though she had the upper hand going into the tie break, but Rybakina found her serve when she needed it most to take a crucial lead.
The second set was a somewhat more straightforward affair, as Rybakina broke Azarenka three times en route to securing a place in her second grand slam final.
“I’m super happy and proud, with my team also because without them it would be difficult to be here,” Rybakina said in her post-match interview. “And really thank you [the crowd] a lot because it’s an incredible atmosphere. I’m super happy to be in the final and play one more time here.
“I’ve got a little bit of experience from Wimbledon, and I want to come on court and enjoy the moment and atmosphere because it’s amazing to play in front of you guys. We’ll see how it’s going to go – for sure, I’ll try my best. I’ll fight and, hopefully, I’m going to win.”
Fifty-three percent of Rybakina’s serves at this tournament have been unreturned, per Eurosport, the highest number across both the men’s and women’s draws at this year’s Australian Open.
It’s become one of the most potent weapons on Tour, and after opening Thursday’s semifinal with a nervous double fault, Rybakina ripped off four unreturned serves – three of them aces – to close out the first game and stir up an excited murmur in the crowd.
These two women had met just once before on Tour, with Rybakina winning 6-3 6-4 at Indian Wells last year.
Rybakina has beaten former grand slam champions in consecutive matches to reach this stage – world No. 1 Iga Światek and then Jelena Ostapenko – and had to do so again to reach Saturday’s final.
Rybakina’s serve looked untouchable in the opening exchanges, but a masterclass in returning from Azarenka earned her a break to go 3-2 up – only for her opponent to break back immediately.
There was little to choose between these two players in what was a brilliant first set of tennis, as both women were hitting their groundstrokes with stunning power and accuracy.
But Rybakina looked to have found the decisive breakthrough, breaking Azarenka’s serve to go 5-3 up and give herself the chance to serve out the opening set.
However, the 2022 Wimbledon winner perhaps started to feel the magnitude of the occasion for the first time, as her first serve all of a sudden deserted her to allow Azarenka to break back at the first time of asking and quickly level the scores at 5-5.
Rybakina’s first-serve percentage, which had been as high as 75% to begin the set, had now plummeted to 48% and once again opened the door for Azarenka to break serve.
The world No. 25 is known for her relaxed demeanor – her famously understated celebration to winning Wimbledon last year making headlines around the world – but her frustration began to bubble over just slightly as she hit a ball into the ground in frustration after another missed serve.
It’s a credit to her mindset that managed she saved three break points from 0-40 down to make Azarenka have to serve to take the first set to a tie break.
Despite Rybakina’s coach doing little to help the tense situation, chastising her with an exasperated expression each time she missed a shot, she held firm in the tie break to win the opening set.
“Of course, they were nervous because they want me to perform well,” she said of her team after the match. “Today was a bit tougher for me. I couldn’t play aggressive tennis, the ball wasn’t going as much, but I tried my best to win.”
Rybakina found her first serve again in the second set and broke Azarenka twice to take a commanding 5-2 lead and give herself a chance to serve for the match.
However, nerves certainly looked as though they got the better of her and she tightened up as Azarenka stepped up her game to get one of those breaks of serve back.
Rybakina wasn’t to be denied for long, though, as she broke Azarenka’s serve for the third time in the set to book her place in Saturday’s final.