Tennis: Sabalenka, Azarenka chase historic all-Belarus final in Melbourne

AFP , Wednesday 25 Jan 2023

Victoria Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka can Thursday set up an all-Belarusian Australian Open final but Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and Magda Linette stand in their way of making Grand Slam history.

Victoria Azarenka of Belarus reacts after defeating Jessica Pegula of the U.S. in their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. AP


Two-time champion Azarenka faces Russian-born Kazakh Rybakina in the first women's semi-final on Rod Laver Arena, with Sabalenka up against Poland's unseeded Linette after.

Should Azarenka and Sabalenka progress to Saturday's final, it will be the first time two Belarusian players have contested the championship match at a tennis major.

"I really want it to happen," said Sabalenka, the fifth seed who is yet to drop a set in 2023 after winning the Adelaide International earlier this month.

"I know that Vika will do everything she can to make it happen. I will do everything I can to make it happen. That's going to be history."

The 33-year-old Azarenka is chasing a hat-trick of titles at Melbourne Park, 10 years after she won her second, but knows she has her work cut out against Rybakina.

"It will be a great match-up," the 24th seed told reporters after knocking out third seed Jessica Pegula in straight sets to reach the last four.

"She's an incredible player," she added of 22nd seed Rybakina.

Rybakina was awarded no ranking points for winning her first Grand Slam title because of Wimbledon's ban on Russian and Belarusian players last year.

She would otherwise have been in the top 10 now.

"She's a very good, solid player. Her ranking obviously doesn't tell the full story," said Azarenka.

Rybakina has launched 35 aces so far in Melbourne and will be hard to topple on the form that has already seen her oust last year's finalist Danielle Collins, top-ranked Iga Swiatek and former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

"Very powerful. Big serve. She's in the semi-final, so she's obviously playing amazing," said Azarenka.

As well as Pegula, Azarenka knocked out 10th seed Madison Keys on her way to the last four so will fear no one as she rolls back the years in Melbourne, scene of her greatest career triumphs in 2012 and 2013.

Melbourne's Polish community was crestfallen when Swiatek was knocked out but now have a new star to cheer in the late-blooming Linette, who is into her first Grand Slam semi-final at the age of 30.

Linette was routed 6-2, 6-1 by Sabalenka when they last met, at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

"My last encounter wasn't the best at the Olympics, so I think I have really big room there for improvement because I obviously can't do any worse than the last one," she told reporters after beating Karolina Pliskova on Wednesday.

Linette, the world number 45, stunned fourth seed Caroline Garcia in the fourth round and will reach a new career-high ranking inside the top 30 thanks to her exploits in Melbourne.

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