SPO_230126 RYBAKINA-1674746433749
Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina waves to the fans after booking her place in the final in Melbourne on Thursday. Image Credit: Reuters

Melbourne: Elena Rybakina stormed to her first Australian Open final with a 7-6(4) 6-3 victory over twice champion Victoria Azarenka on Thursday and the Russian-born Kazakh will face Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka after the fifth seed beat Magda Linette 7-6(1) 6-2.

Wimbledon champion Rybakina wore down Azarenka in a contest that was cagey early on and had some wild momentum swings before she dominated her opponent on Rod Laver Arena to prevail.

Rybakina held her nerve as 24th seed Azarenka foundered in a messy first set tiebreak then dropped serve twice to fall 5-2 behind in the second.

The Kazakh was broken as she served for the set but Azarenka double-faulted to concede three match points in the next game, allowing Rybakina to close out an emphatic win.

Incredible atmosphere

“I’m super happy and proud. Without my team it would be difficult to be here so thanks a lot to them,” Moscow-born Rybakina, Kazakhstan’s first Grand Slam champion, said on court.

“It was an incredible atmosphere and I’m super happy to be in the final and play again here.

“It was difficult conditions, I couldn’t play offensive tennis but I’m happy I managed to win.”

SPO_230126 SABALENKA1-1674746437411
Aryna Sabalenka in all smiles after her victory over Poland's Magda Linette in the women's singles semi-finals. Image Credit: AFP

Sabalenka joined the 22nd seed in the final after dismissing Linette following a cold start on a chilly evening on the main showcourt, as the 24-year-old reached her first Grand Slam final after three previous semi-final defeats.

Successful march

The victory also extended Sabalenka’s winning run this year to 10 matches following her successful march to the Adelaide title, which warmed her up nicely for the season’s first major.

“I’m super happy that I was able to get this win and she’s an unbelievable player,” Sabalenka said of Linette. “She played really great tennis. The atmosphere was unbelievable.

“Just being in the final in this kind of tournament is amazing. To feel this atmosphere, to play on this court it’s a great experience for me and I hope it’s going to help tomorrow. Sorry, Saturday.”

SPO_230126 LINETTE-1674746427567
Magda Linette hits a forehand return to Sabalenka on Thursday. Image Credit: AP

Rybakina firepower

Rybakina’s serve has propelled her through the tournament, and she clubbed nine aces earlier against Azarenka.

But she double-faulted on the first point of the match, raising a low gasp from the terraces.

They needn’t have worried.

She thumped down three consecutive aces to hold then served out to love in her next effort.

After that start, it was a surprise when Azarenka picked her off at the net to break her in the fifth game.

Rybakina shrugged it off then broke Azarenka twice, repeatedly outrallying the powerful Belarusian.

Azarenka responded with her own firepower.

Running full tilt, she saved a set point with a forehand passing shot and put the pressure back on Rybakina.

SPO_230126 AZARENKA-1674746431377
Victoria Azarenka addressing a press conference after her loss in the semi-finals. Image Credit: AFP

Misfiring serves

The Kazakh cracked, hitting a backhand long, and Azarenka yelled “Let’s go!” as she put the match back on serve.

Though failing to land a first serve 11 times in succession, Rybakina saved three break points at 5-5 before momentum shifted again when Azarenka tightened up in the tiebreak.

The Belarusian double-faulted to fall 4-2 behind, punched a backhand long to concede two set points, then slapped a forehand well wide as she failed to deal with Rybakina’s aggression.

Having lost the tiebreak, the errors piled up for Azarenka as she dropped serve again in the second set and all but surrendered with a wild forehand to fall 5-2 behind.

Rybakina wobbled when serving out the match, a double-fault coughing up three break points and opening the door for Azarenka.

Hopes slip

But any hopes of a comeback slipped away as Azarenka imploded on serve.

Though she saved a match point, her bid for a third title at Melbourne Park ended flatly, with a backhand hammered into the net, one of 27 unforced errors.

“It’s kind of hard to digest, obviously,” a gloomy Azarenka told reporters, wearing sunglasses at her post-match media conference.

“Obviously I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.

“I cannot really say I’m really proud of how I played.”