Tennis: Sabalenka sets up a Brisbane final vs Rybakina, a rematch of 2023 Australian Open decider

AP , Saturday 6 Jan 2024

Almost a year after contesting the Australian Open final, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina will meet in the title match of a key tune-up event for the first major of 2024.

Sabalenka
Sabalenka (AP)

Top-seeded Sabalenka overpowered her compatriot and two-time champion Victoria Azarenka in a 6-2, 6-4 win Saturday that earned her a spot in the Brisbane International final against Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon winner.

The win extended top-seeded Sabalenka’s streak to 15 on Australian soil, including a title run in Adelaide last year before her Grand Slam breakthrough at Melbourne Park.

That 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in the Australian Open final last January was the highlight of Sabalenka’s five wins over Rybakina in their seven career meetings.

“Let’s just say it’s going to be great battle as always,” Sabalenka said, looking forward to Sunday’s final. “Always great matches against Elena.

“We both play really super aggressive tennis. That’s why all the matches are pretty tight — we both put each other under so much pressure.”

The Australian swing last year set Sabalenka on course for a career-best season, reaching the semifinals or better at all four majors, gaining the No. 1 ranking and finishing the year at No. 2.

“Last year was an incredible year for me,” she said. “I think I’ve had enough time to recharge, some time off. Great pre-season, enough time without playing any tournaments. Here I am ready to go and full of energy.”

Sabalenka fired 10 aces and hit 35 winners against Azarenka, who won back-to-back Australian Open titles in 2012 and ’13 and is also a two-time champion in Brisbane.

She broke her 34-year-old former Fed Cup teammate’s serve three times and saved all three break points she faced.

Azarenka appeared to hurt her right knee late in the match, but later said it wasn’t a major concern

“I wish I was a little bit more prepared physically today,” she said. “But, I still feel like in the second set I was able to create some chances. Definitely a good match for me before the Australian Open to play and see, for the next time, what I can do differently.”

Sunday’s final will be the first to feature the top two seeds in Brisbane since 2015, when No. 1 Maria Sharapova held off No. 2 Ana Ivanovic in three sets.

Rybakina had 26 winners, eight aces and committed just 10 unforced errors as she advanced 6-3, 6-2 over 19-year-old Linda Noskova.

She has conceded just 12 games across four straight-set wins and said she felt like she was gaining momentum ahead of the Australian Open, which starts Jan. 14.

MEN’S FINAL IS ALSO 1 vs 2

The men’s final also will feature the top two seeds.

No. 1 Holger Rune advanced with a 6-4, 7-6 (0) win over Roman Safiullin and No. 2 Grigor Dimitrov, the 2017 champion, beat Jordan Thompson 6-3, 7-5.

“It’s exactly how I wanted it to be, to get the most amount of matches as possible,” Rune said of his run in Brisbane. “It’s a great challenge tomorrow to try to see where I’m at when it really matters.”

Since opening with a tough win over Andy Murray, Dimitrov hasn’t dropped a set en route to his third final in Brisbane.

He rallied from 0-40 down in the seventh game of the second set, saving four break points, to hold his own serve and then broke Thompson’s serve in the 11th game to set up the victory.

Thompson was coming off the biggest upset of the tournament. He saved three match points and rallied to beat 22-time major winner Rafael Nadal in an almost 3 1/2-hour quarterfinal on Friday night.

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