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Australian Open semifinals: Rybakina-Azarenka faceoff

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Reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and former two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka will fight it out for a place in the final.

Showcase match
(22) Elena Rybakina vs (24) Victoria Azarenka (Semifinal)
2 pm, Rod Laver Arena

There have been few Wimbledon champions in history that have received the treatment that Elena Rybakina has got in the six months since her triumph.

The WTA’s decision to strip the event of ranking points in response to Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players is a reason for that, not allowing the Russia-born Kazakh to rise up the rankings. But there has been ignorance from the media at large, and from tournament organisers that have made her play on outside courts in high-profile events.

She has been vocal about feeling let down by her ranking at times, but has more or less let her tennis do the talking. “It does not matter so much what court you start the tournament on as it does what court you finish the tournament on,” she said after beating World No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the Australian Open fourth round.

Rybakina has thrived under the radar, emerging out of one of the most lopsided sections of a women’s Grand Slam in recent history with remarkable ease. She is yet to lose a set, with wins over Swiatek, last year’s finalist Danielle Collins, and big hitter Jelena Ostapenko. She has played to her strengths, keeping the rallies (and match durations) short by using her easy power to overwhelm opponents, and returned well and deep to get past big servers.

The 6-ft-tall Kazakh sets up her game on her biggest strength, a powerful serve. Per WTA, nearly half of her first serves in Melbourne have gone unreturned, and she has a tournament-high 35 aces. That strength should be put to the test by her next opponent, Belarusian Victoria Azarenka.

The peak of Azarenka’s career may have come a decade ago, but her familiarity with conditions in Melbourne as a two-time former champion, and her aggressive baseline game, have proved to be huge weapons.

She is a pure returner, able to take advantage of faltering service speeds with an advanced return positioning – sometimes inside the baseline – and is adept at making players who enjoy keeping rallies short uncomfortable by making them play one or two more shots than they would like. Watch out for Azarenka’s use of the backhand slice, which could rob Rybakina of the pace she enjoys redirecting for winners, and get her engaged in longer rallies.

More than just reaching a Major final though, what Azarenka is trying to achieve in Melbourne is fascinating, and incredibly difficult. If she wins the title, there will be exactly 10 years between her latest and last (Australian Open 2013) Grand Slam singles title, by far the longest period for any multiple-Slam champion.

The Belarusian is trying to prove that she can return to the sport’s elite stage despite having left it for the better part of a decade. In her way, however, is a perfect match for her game – a heavy, flat hitter with a big serve – with a point to prove of her own.