Aryna Sabalenka (world No.5), Victoria Azarenka (No.24), Elena Rybakina (No.25) and Magda Linette (No.45) are the remaining contenders to lift the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup at Saturday’s Australian Open women’s singles final.
AO23: Azarenka-Rybakina and Sabalenka-Linette. Who will make the final?
We look ahead to the women’s singles semi-finals at the 2023 Australian Open, where two Grand Slam winners go head to head and the world No. 5 faces a surprise package.
Azarenka in familiar territory
Azarenka is the only former Melbourne winner of the four, her two Australian Open wins having come as far back as 2012 and 2013. Over the last 10 years, the ex-world No. 1 has been through every conceivable emotion on and off the court. After giving birth to son Leo in December 2016 and falling as low as 208 in the world rankings in 2017, she bounced back in 2020, winning in Cincinnati and then reaching the US Open final. A permanent fixture in the top 30 since then, she made an important breakthrough in the close season, as she revealed.
“Being able to accept everything that I’m going through,” she said. “If I’m not playing well, I’m looking for a solution on how to overcome that, which in a lot of cases in the past, I would just react and be angry. I’m pretty happy that the process that I’m going through makes me feel confident about myself and happy about myself, and helps me to be more open, accepting, and compassionate.”
Azarenka’s new mindset helped her see off Sofia Kenin (No.203), Nadia Podoroska (No.191), Madison Keys (No.13), Lin Zhu (No.87) and Jessica Pegula (No.3) to check into her ninth Grand Slam semi.
Waiting for her there is Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina (25). “She’s an incredible player who’s had her ups and downs, and her ranking obviously doesn’t tell the full story,” said Vika. “Very powerful. Big serve. She’s in the semi-final, so she’s obviously playing amazing. It’s going to be a big challenge and I really can’t wait for it.”
Rybakina with a point to prove
Last year’s Wimbledon winner has gone virtually unnoticed since, mainly because ranking points were not on offer at London’s Grand Slam event, preventing her from climbing up the rankings. Nevertheless, Rybakina has shown once again in Melbourne that she is a force to be reckoned with on the big occasion, especially now that she has experience at the very highest level to draw on.
“I think of course I got all the experience at Wimbledon and it’s helping me now this time here in Australia and I know what to expect,” said the Kazakh player. “It’s a lot easier. I feel good on court and I’m making the most of every match I play here.”
The conqueror of world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the last 16 and the powerful Jelena Ostapenko in the quarter-finals, Rybakina seems to fear no one. “I’ve done it once and I know I can do it again, so that helps. The closer you get to the end of the tournament, the more the players want to give their all and fight for every point. There are only very good players left. I know it’s going to be tough but I’m going to watch the matches, analyse, reflect and prepare to do my best on court.”
Linette comes out of nowhere
Few predicted a place for Linette in the last four. Having never progressed beyond the third round at a Grand Slam event in 29 previous attempts, the Pole was hardly one of the favourites when the draw was made. Ranked 45th in the world, the 30-year-old is playing the best tennis of her life, however.
Sidelined for five months after picking up a serious knee injury at the end of 2020, Linette has found another level since returning to the Tour. “It really changed me. I’ve become a lot calmer. I’ve also made changes to my lifestyle and taken difficult decisions that are paying off now.”
Showing some impressive consistency since the start of the tournament, Linette blew her last two opponents, Caroline Garcia (4) and Karolina Pliskova (30), off the court, and now has Sabalenka (5e) standing between her and a place in the final.
It’s a challenge that the Pole is relishing, despite having lost both her previous meetings with the Belarusian.
“I’ve stayed calm maybe because I still don’t really believe it,” said Linette. “Just I think also I had so much experience on those big courts before, because almost every Grand Slam I ended up on a big court one way or another. I played so many big players already. It’s just nothing really new for me. Just another match. Of course it’s way more far in the draw. But still, it kind of feels the same.
“I think I can do a lot better against Sabalenka than in our last match, at the Olympic Games. It couldn’t be any worse than that match. I’ll try to do what I’ve been doing since the start here: be solid, return well and hold my serve. I know she’ll be aggressive with every shot so I really have to serve well. I’ll try to return as well as I can and it worked pretty well in my last two matches, where my opponents had a similar game to hers.”
Sabalenka ready to take final step
Sabalenka, who was in commanding form in beating Donna Vekic 6-3 6-2 in the last eight, will look to make her power from the back of the court count and succeed where Garcia and Pliskova both failed. The Fort Worth Masters runner-up also faces a battle against herself as she seeks to win a first Grand Slam semi-final at the fourth attempt.
“I think that I lost those three semi-finals just because I wasn’t really calm on court. I was overdoing things. I really wanted to get this Slam. I was rushing a lot. I was nervous a lot. Screaming, doing all this stuff. Right now, I’m a little bit more calm on court. I think I really believe that this is the only thing that was missing in my game. If I can keep that focus and that calm on court, I can get through it.”