No.5 seed Iga Swiatek took another step toward the first title defence of her career at the Adelaide International, overcoming Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 2-6, 6-1 in 1 hour and 57 minutes to reach the semifinals.
Swiatek's only previous encounter with Azarenka came in the 2020 US Open third round when she was 19 years old and ranked No.53. Despite an impressive performance, Azarenka was able to advance 6-4, 6-2 en route to her fifth Grand Slam final.
Since then, the Pole has established herself firmly at the top of the game, and the bulk of their Adelaide rematch was a pulsating contest of top quality in which both sought to impose their weightiest hitting on the other.
Tactical adjustments and her signature competitive instincts enabled No.27-ranked Azarenka to become the first player to win a set from Swiatek in Adelaide. However, the 20-year-old eventually pulled away in the third set as an ailing Azarenka's movement became visibly hampered, and maintains her eight-match winning streak in the South Australian capital.
Azarenka would later withdraw from her doubles semifinal with a right leg injury, handing No.3 seeds Darija Jurak Schreiber and Andreja Klepac a walkover into the final.
By the numbers: Azarenka posted 22 winners to 26 unforced errors in total, but 10 of the former and just four of the latter came in a clean, focused second set in which she seized momentum from Swiatek. Advancing to net at every opportunity, the Belarusian's overhead was in fine fettle, and her famed return was at its best as she broke Swiatek for the set with a quartet of booming responses.
Swiatek tallied 27 winners to 28 unforced errors, and particularly notable was her balanced game. The World No.9's heavy forehand is the stroke with which she usually dominates, and it was in electrifying shape at the start of the match. However, Swiatek finished the match with 17 backhand winners to 10 from the forehand, with a series of sharply angled passes off the former wing drawing gasps.
First-serve percentage proved crucial in the first two sets: Swiatek's fell from 67% to 50% while Azarenka's rose from 53% to 68%. In the decider, Swiatek's numbers recovered to 68% while Azarenka, who was visibly limping as she fell behind 4-0, fell back to 53%.
In Swiatek's words: "Winning against such an experienced player is still pretty new for me," she said after the match. "That was my third match where I actually could show what I practiced during pre-season. That's really satisfying because I had this problem last year where I was practicing really great and I felt like I could do more on matches. This time it's different. It's actually going my way, so I'm pretty happy about that.
"Basically my main tactic was the same as in previous match: I want to be the first one to attack and to play that faster ball that's going to give me opportunity to go forward. Basically I did that pretty well.
"But I felt like in the second set I backed out a little bit, so that was my mistake. She used that. I knew she's going to do that. Basically I felt the same way when I was playing Simona last year Australian Open. She just used every opportunity to come back to the match."
"I knew in third set I need to start the same way the first set. I think it was pretty easy, just a matter of who is going to attack first and who is going to have more time to go forward."
What's next for Swiatek: A popcorn clash between the 2019 and 2020 Roland Garros champions looms in the last four as Swiatek takes on No.1 seed Ashleigh Barty. Like the Azarenka contest, it is another rematch for Swiatek against a major champion who triumphed in their only prior meeting. The Australian defeated Swiatek 7-5, 6-4 in the third round of Rome last year.