Victoria Azarenka to face Elena Rybakina in Australian Open semi-finals

Wimbledon champion defeats Latvian 6-2, 6-4 to take step closer to second Grand Slam title

Victoria Azarenka applauds the crowd after winning her Australian Open quarter-final match against Jessica Pegula. EPA
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Victoria Azarenka set up an Australian Open semi-final showdown with Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina after an impressive 6-4, 6-1 win over third seed Jessica Pegula on Tuesday.

Azarenka outlasted her American opponent in a marathon 64-minute first set before running away with the second to set as the Belarusian 24th seed continued her bid for a third Australian Open title.

"Well, it hurts to beat her because I always want her to do well," said Azarenka, 33, who won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013. "But at the same time I have to play my best tennis. She has been playing amazing, very consistent. I knew from the first point I had to bring it."

Pegula was in her third Australian Open quarter-final and had never reached the semi-finals of a Grand Slam in four previous attempts, failing to win a set in any of them. It was a sorry statistic that was to be extended under the roof at Rod Laver Arena.

Pegula had dropped only 18 games en route to the quarter-final, fewer than any other player left in the draw, but was immediately put under the pump by the relentless groundstrokes of her opponent.

Azarenka's defence and her ability to put the pressure on during long rallies was all too evident in the first set.

Azarenka sped into an early 3-0 lead then forced Pegula to save six break points in an attritional 10-minute fourth game, before the American finally got on the scoreboard.

Pegula somehow still clung on.

She saved two set points on her serve to get to 3-5 and two more in the next game, before turning the tables and breaking Azarenka to get back to 4-5.

Azarenka would not buckle, moving forward to take the ball early in Pegula's next service game.

The tactic brought her two more set points and this time the Belarusian succeeded on the first to take the opener 6-4 after 64 relentlessly physical minutes.

"We had so many rallies and I just wanted to try and stay there and take opportunities," said Azarenka.

"I'm very proud that I executed my game plan really well. It's so amazing to be in another semi-final of a Grand Slam."

Rybakina powers on

Wimbledon champion Rybakina continued her march toward a second Grand Slam title after dominating Jelena Ostapenko in the Australian Open quarter-finals on Tuesday.

In a battle between two of the WTA Tour's power hitters, it was Rybakina, behind her dominant serve, who eased to a 6-2, 6-4 victory in 1hr 19min on Rod Laver Arena.

"I am super happy to be in the semi-finals. It was an amazing atmosphere," Rybakina, 23, said. "Of course, I was nervous, especially in the last game, to be honest. Not as nervous as before the match. I am super happy that I managed with my emotions and I played very well today."

Rybakina had declared "she could beat anyone" after knocking out top seed Iga Swiatek in straight sets on Sunday and said she was targeting the No 1 ranking.

Based on her last two performances, the Kazakh is certainly backing up her words.

She was quickest out of the blocks behind her big serve, breaking Ostapenko immediately and hammering down three aces to reach 3-1.

Rybakina created another break point at 30-40 when a sudden cloudburst halted the 22nd seed's momentum. The players scurried from Rod Laver Arena while the roof was closed and the water mopped up.

"In Australia you never know. In the morning, one weather, then in a few hours it changes, so you have to be ready always," Rybakina said.

After a delay of almost half an hour, Ostapenko saw off the immediate danger but was powerless to prevent the aggressive Rybakina capturing the game on a second break two points later.

Rybakina's serving got her out of trouble in the next at 15-40 and she closed out the opening set – played under two different sets of conditions – in 32 minutes.

"Everybody needs to adapt," Rybakina said. "I think I did really well from the beginning of the match and continuing through the first set."

Ostapenko upped the power on her groundstrokes at the start of the second, breaking for 2-0 with a scream. But the calm Rybakina reeled off four games in a row to put the finish line firmly in sight.

At 6-5 serving for the match, the normally assured Russian-born Rybakina saw two match points saved before her 11th ace propelled her through.

"I am trying to be calm, but I need them and it helps a lot during the match," said the world No 25, who would be inside the top 10 had she received points for her Wimbledon win, where Russian and Belarusian players were banned. "There is a lot of energy from my box. Thank you to my coaches, to family and friends."

Former French Open champion Ostapenko, also in her first Melbourne Park quarter-final, had won both the pair's previous encounters.

After knocking out seventh seed Coco Gauff in the fourth round, the 25-year-old Latvian said her confidence was back, but it will have taken a dent after running into Rybakina.

Updated: January 24, 2023, 11:05 AM
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