MELBOURNE, Australia -- Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina advanced to her second major final, defeating former No.1 Victoria Azarenka 7-6(4), 6-3 on Thursday in the Australian Open semifinals. Seeded No.22 in Melbourne, Rybakina will face No.5 Aryna Sabalenka in Saturday's championship.
Playing in her first Australian Open semifinal, Rybakina faced a major champion for the third straight match. Rybakina, 23, notched wins over last year's finalist, Danielle Collins, World No.1 Iga Swiatek, 2019 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka.
The Kazakh is guaranteed to make her Top 10 debut after the Australian Open, following Magda Linette's loss in the second semifinal.
Rybakina won her only prior meeting with Azarenka, a straight-sets win at Indian Wells last year.
How the match was won: In a high-quality one-hour opening set, Rybakina and Azarenka exchanged blows from the baseline before Azarenka broke first for a 3-1 lead on an entertaining cat-and-mouse point at the net. But Rybakina broke straight back and settled herself on serve to take a 4-3 lead.
Rybakina broke for a 5-3 lead but could not close the set. Azarenka saved set point with a running forehand down the line pass and broke to get back on serve. This time it was Rybakina's turn to withstand the pressure on her serve. In the biggest game of the set, Rybakina saved her serve from 0-40 to hold at 6-5.
Rybakina went on to play a clean tiebreak to edge Azarenka, finishing with 20 winners to 16 unforced errors and winning the set despite serving at 48%. Azarenka finished with 17 winners and 13 unforced errors.
"Overall I felt like I was handling her serve actually pretty well," Azarenka said. "Couple shots after that, I wasn't adjusting well. Some balls were coming slow. Some balls were coming faster. I felt like I wasn't really focusing on what I have to do. Kind of misjudged a lot of balls."
Having lost just one set in the tournament, Rybakina proved a formidable frontrunner. With a set in hand, she broke Azarenka quickly and consolidated to lead 3-1 in the second set. As Azarenka's serve began to falter, Rybakina grabbed a second break to lead 5-2.
Azarenka was unable to generate a break point in the second set but earned two chances as Rybakina tried to serve out the win. A clean return winner at 5-2, 30-40 gave the 33-year-old one break back, but Rybakina closed out the match on her return. A sixth double fault from Azarenka gave Rybakina triple-break point and the Wimbledon champion converted after Azarenka's final shot landed in the net.
Final Stats: Rybakina finished the 1-hour and 41-minute match with 30 winners, including 9 aces to 21 unforced errors. Azarenka hit 26 winners to 27 unforced errors. Rybakina kept the sustained pressure on Azarenka's serve, breaking on five of 11 break points. Azarenka's broke serve on 3 of 8 break points.
Rybakina adjusts well to the slower conditions: "I couldn't get free points on my serve that easy like during the day when I played the matches. I knew that I need just to adjust. I was doing the correct things. It was just a matter to be more focused on these important moments. In the end, I just was playing point by point no matter score. Everything went well."
Azarenka rues her missed opportunity: "I'm proud of myself how I fought and I tried, but tennis-wise I felt like just wasn't there, especially in the important moments when I kept creating those opportunities for me. Just couldn't convert them.
"Not a great feeling right now to digest. But give me a couple of hours and I can have probably a better outlook on this month in Australia. Look forward to throughout the year what I can do."