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Women's SF preview: The wait is nearly over

  • Ravi Ubha

Two Grand Slam champions meet in the first semifinal on Thursday. Two-time AO title holder Victoria Azarenka comes face to face with Elena Rybakina, a major winner who has yet to make the final four in Melbourne.

MORE: Day 11 schedule of play 

Then, will four Grand Slam semifinal attempts turn into a final for Aryna Sabalenka? Or will the unseeded Magda Linette cause a surprise upset?

Elena Rybakina [22] v Victoria Azarenka [24]

Head to head: 1-0

Azarenka has already won arguably tennis’ biggest individual prize but now sits two wins away from pulling off her own comeback — landing a first major in 10 years aged 33. 

She has been around the game long enough to know that looking that far ahead is dangerous but the thought of lifting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy can’t be blocked out entirely. 

Victoria Azarenka (Getty Images)

“Thinking about winning, I mean, it's there obviously, kind of flying around,” said Azarenka, who beat Jessica Pegula on Tuesday for a first defeat of a top-five opponent at a Grand Slam since 2012. “I don't really want to take my mind there. 

“I just really want to focus on something that works for me, that keeps me focused, that keeps me, I want to say calm, just keeps me at peace. I think that is a very important part for me, to be at peace.”

Being at peace proved difficult last season for Azarenka, champion in Melbourne in 2012 and 2013. 

She admitted she dealt with anxiety, the fear of failing and had previously suffered from panic attacks. 

“I think it builds up until you hit a pretty bad spot where nothing makes sense,” said Azarenka. 

“You feel kind of lost. I was at the point where I couldn't find anything that I feel good about myself, not even one sentence. 

“I broke a few racquets after my match in Ostrava. That was a very tough moment for me,” she added, referring to a first-round defeat in October to Ekaterina Alexandrova. 

“From then, I tried to take it more simple. I started with not trying to be positive, just trying to be neutral, not to go negative. Accepting the anxiety that I have, accepting the fear I have. 

“Kind of working through it. That was step by step.”

Her honest briefing with reporters mimicked the 2020 US Open, when Azarenka made a first Grand Slam final in seven years. 

A shift in mindset led the former No.1 to tell herself to get off her “high horse,” she disclosed in New York. 

Azarenka fell in that final to Naomi Osaka. Her opponent on Thursday night at Rod Laver Arena is also a Grand Slam champion with a powerful baseline game, Elena Rybakina. 

The Wimbledon winner won a lone duel in the thin air of Indian Wells last March 6-3 6-4, with Azarenka describing the contest as “kind of a weird match” for her. 

Elena Rybakina (Getty Images

At AO 2023 Rybakina cracked on after upsetting world No.1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round, then defeating fellow Grand Slam champion Jelena Ostapenko in straight sets.

Her ability to thump aces — she leads all women at AO 2023 in that department — and rip from the baseline has largely taken opponents out of the equation. 

The 23-year-old endured her own struggles prior to her Wimbledon success but her headspace now differs. 

“I had a tough period before Wimbledon in the sense I was very tired mentally,” said the Kazakh.

“I played a lot of tournaments, so I was not at my best and I took a break. So, it was kind of not really expected to win at Wimbledon.

“But here it's different because, first of all, I already did it once, and of course I got confident that I can do it again. I did really good preparation with the team. I'm not really surprised with the results.

“I'm happy. I'm just hungry to work and improve more.”

Aryna Sabalenka [5] v Magda Linette

Head to head: 2-0

Ahead of her contest with unseeded Magda Linette, Sabalenka is the sole player in either singles draw not to surrender a set. 

Her latest win, 6-3 6-2 over Donna Vekic, wasn’t as lopsided as the score suggested, though. 

Sabalenka contended with 14 break points — more than the 13 she faced the previous four rounds combined — and her double faults inched up for the first time to nine.

But she saved 12 of the break points and still tallied more winners than unforced errors, 38 to 35.

STAT-TASTIC: Sabalenka rides tsunami of winners to semis

Sabalenka and Rybakina are among the game’s hardest hitters. 

Afterwards, Vekic — who returned to a major quarterfinal after a comeback from knee surgery — noted Sabalenka’s new-found calm. 

Does Sabalenka feel invincible after also winning the title in Adelaide in early January without conceding a set? 

“I wouldn't say that, but I feel like I have belief that no matter what happens on court, I'll be able to get through it,” she said. 

Attempting to win a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time in four tries marks a different challenge, as she acknowledged. 

She led Swiatek 4-2 in the third set of their US Open semifinal in September before losing 16 of the last 20 points.

“Right now it's going to be really a test for me, if I can keep myself calm like I was keeping myself calm during these past matches,” said the fifth seed. 

Sabalenka’s 2-0 record against Linette includes a 6-2 6-1 result at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. 

But if Sabalenka could be performing better than ever on court, the same is true of Swiatek’s fellow Pole. 

Battling back from her own knee surgery, coping better in difficult moments in matches and the feel-good factor of representing Poland recently at both the Billie Jean King Cup and United Cup have all contributed to the world No.45’s big breakthrough.

"MISTAKES WERE DEFINING ME": Linette lights up after learning to let go

Prior to AO 2023, the 30-year-old counterpuncher owned an 0-6 record in Grand Slam third rounds and a 2-7 record against Wednesday’s beaten opponent, Karolina Pliskova

Toppling Sabalenka would mark a fifth straight victory over seeded opposition. 

Magda Linette (Getty Images)

“My last encounter [with Sabalenka] wasn’t the best at the Olympics, so I think I have really big room there, because it obviously can't be any worse than the last one,” said Linette, who overcame WTA Finals winner Caroline Garcia in the fourth round. 

“I will just try what I'm doing this whole week. I'm being very consistent, returning really well, and keeping my serves. 

“I will try to do my best on the return, and I have been doing that pretty well the last two matches, especially when the opponent was kind of similar.”

When Vekic was asked for her pick to win the title, the Croatian first mentioned the “amazing” play of the quartet. 

But once again showing the psychological nature of tennis, she subsequently used the term “mental battle.” 

“I think who is going to stay more calm and be more confident is going to win,” said Vekic.