Elena Rybakina is the first player through to the Australian Open 2023 women’s semifinals after triumphing in a battle of major champions.
The 22nd seed overpowered Jelena Ostapenko 6-2 6-4 in the one hour and 19 minute encounter on Rod Laver Arena, becoming the first woman representing Kazakhstan to reach the final four at Melbourne Park.
“I’m super happy to be first time in the semifinal,” said a jubilant Rybakina.
Career-best AO runs for both the reigning Wimbledon champion and the 2017 Roland Garros champion set up another clash between major winners at Melbourne Park, after Rybakina beat three-time Grand Slam titlist Iga Swiatek in the last 16.
Seventeenth seed Ostapenko entered the match-up brimming with confidence. The 25-year-old hadn’t dropped a set to Rybakina in their two previous duels and made an impeccable fourth-round showing to upset 7th seed Coco Gauff in straight sets.
But 23-year-old Rybakina has similarly had an Australian summer to remember.
She notched up her first win over a reigning world No.1 with her fourth-round upset of Swiatek, having toppled 13th seed and AO 2022 finalist Danielle Collins in the third round.
“She hits really hard, and she plays aggressive like me,” Rybakina said of Ostapenko. “I think it’s going to be [a] tough battle like the previous matches.”
Story of the match
In humid conditions, Rybakina secured a break in the opening game – and dropped just one point in her first two service games.
The 22nd seed’s return game was deadly against Ostapenko, and with a cool demeanour, she punished the Latvian’s laggardly second serves.
Returning from a brief rain delay, the Kazakh clinched a double break advantage as she overpowered her opponent.
Comfortable at the net, she punched out crisp volleys to show off the prowess that has also helped take her to the third round of the women’s doubles competition.
A composed Rybakina closed out the opening set when an Ostapenko forehand return sailed long.
The Latvian began to find her targets in the second set, letting out a roar of “C’mon!” after breaking her opponent for a 2-0 lead.
But an unfazed Rybakina quickly turned the tables against her rival, nabbing the next four games and saving four break points in the process.
Ostapenko produced flashes of brilliance, but it was her younger foe who better harnessed power and precision with a semifinals berth in sight.
Stepping up to the baseline, Rybakina slammed down an ace to take victory on her third match point.
“Of course I was nervous, especially in the last game, to be honest not as nervous as before the match,” said Rybakina.
The Kazakh had no problems with the fact that rain turned the match into an indoor tussle under a closed roof.
“The conditions were different, but we expect that it can happen in Australia – you never know in the morning it’s one weather, then in a few hours it changes,” she said.
“You have to be ready always. That’s the beauty of the sport, everybody needs to adapt and I think I did really well from the beginning of the match then continued through the first set.”
“I’m super happy that I managed with the emotions and I played really well today,” said Rybakina.
Rybakina’s serve is a key weapon, and it paid dividends on Tuesday. She fired 11 aces to Ostapenko’s one.
The Kazakh’s average first and second serve speeds of 178.5 km/h and 134.9 km/h outpaced Ostapenko’s at 156.3km/h and 127.2 km/h, respectively.
Rybakina was able to apply immense pressure by putting 80 per cent of returns in play, while her foe managed to return only 57 per cent of her serves.
Importantly, she saved seven of eight break points to fend off any sort of comeback from her spirited rival.
What this means for Rybakina
Rybakina’s semifinal adversary will be decided in Tuesday night’s titanic showdown between third seed Jessica Pegula and two-time AO champion and 24th seed Victoria Azarenka.
“For sure I’m going to watch a bit [of] my opponents,” said Rybakina. “Same time [I] need to a bit forget about tennis, just for a few hours, rest the mind and prepare for again a tough match and battle.”
What’s next for Ostapenko?
Ostapenko’s performance this fortnight surpasses her third round record at AO 2022, so she is likely to climb in the rankings.
With five career singles titles to her name and being better at managing the expectations that have haunted her since clinching that Roland Garros title six years ago, the 25-year-old will aim to do some damage during the 2023 season.
Source: Gill Tan