By Ian Ransom and Shrivathsa Sridhar
MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Elena Rybakina won a duel of Grand Slam champions to reach her first Australian Open final and will battle Aryna Sabalenka for the title after the Belarusian shrugged off her semi-final hoodoo at the majors.
Rybakina claimed a 7-6(4) 6-3 victory over twice champion Victoria Azarenka in the first semi-final on Thursday, ending the chance of an awkward all-Belarusian decider for organisers, who banned the nation’s flags early in the event.
Fifth seed Sabalenka beat Magda Linette 7-6(1) 6-2 in the late match at Rod Laver Arena, reaching her first Grand Slam final after falling at the semi-final hurdle three times before.
The title match will pair two big-serving, baseline pounders with contrasting personalities.
Russian-born Rybakina is the quiet achiever who switched allegiance to Kazakhstan as a 19-year-old and won the central Asian nation its first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon last year.
The animated Sabalenka has long been seen as a Grand Slam contender but has been a slave to her emotions on the biggest stages.
Rybakina’s “non-celebration” on court after beating Ons Jabeur in the Wimbledon final was repeated on Rod Laver Arena on Thursday as she walked calmly to the net without so much as a fist-pump to shake hands with the vanquished Azarenka.
“For me this time I would say it was a bit easier also compared to Wimbledon when I was playing for the first time quarters, semis, final,” the 23-year-old told reporters.
“Everything was new at Wimbledon. Now I more or less understand what to expect.”
It was Rybakina’s third victory in succession over a Grand Slam champion, having knocked out world number one Iga Swiatek and Jelena Ostapenko in the previous rounds.
It was far from easy, though.
Rybakina had to come back from a break down in the first set against the feisty 24th seed Azarenka, who was chasing her third title after winning back-to-back in 2012-13.
The Kazakh, seeded 22nd, held her nerve as Azarenka foundered in a messy first set tiebreak, then roared on to a 5-2 lead over the Belarusian in the second set.
Though suffering a wobble as she served for the set, Rybakina was gifted three match points when Azarenka double-faulted in the next game.
Azarenka saved one match point but her bid for a third title at Melbourne Park ended flatly, with a backhand hammered into the net, one of 27 unforced errors.
“It’s kind of hard to digest, obviously,” a gloomy Azarenka told reporters, wearing sunglasses at her post-match media conference.
“Obviously I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.
“I cannot really say I’m really proud of how I played.”
Sabalenka joined Rybakina in the final after a cold start on a chilly evening, notching her 10th win in succession, including the warm-up Adelaide title.
Sabalenka said she had stopped using a psychologist in the off-season and decided to take her head-game into her own hands.
“I was trying to scream less after some bad points or some errors. I was just trying to hold myself, stay calm, just think about the next point,” she said of the semi-final.
“Actually, I’m not that boring, I think. I’m still screaming ‘come on’ and all that stuff. I don’t think it’s that boring to watch me. I hope so.”
Broken in the first game, Sabalenka pressured Linette’s serve to take the tiebreak before racing away in the second set.
Unseeded 30-year-old Pole Linette would have been far from pre-tournament predictions of who would reach the semi-finals and was happy with her run.
“It’s really been so rewarding for … all the sacrifices, all these years on tour, so many Grand Slams. It was my 30th attempt,” she said.
Geopolitics has been ever-present at the year’s first Grand Slam, with organisers making the unprecedented decision to ban Russian and Belarusian flags from the event after a complaint from the Ukraine embassy in Australia.
Police questioned four fans with “inappropriate flags and symbols” at Melbourne Park following Wednesday’s quarter-final between Novak Djokovic and Russian Andrey Rublev.
Australian Open organisers on Thursday issued a reminder to players and their entourages about the policy after a video showing Novak Djokovic’s father posing for pictures with fans holding Russian flags was widely shared on social media.
Serbian Djokovic, who plays American Tommy Paul in the men’s semi-finals on Friday, did not comment on the video.
Asked by reporters whether it was difficult to focus on tennis with the politics rumbling in the background, Azarenka lost patience.
“I don’t know what you guys want us to do about it,” she snapped.
“These incidents that in my opinion have nothing to do with players, but somehow you keep dragging players into it.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Ken Ferris and Toby Chopra)
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Source: The Print