Magical things happen during the Australian Open semifinals. Sure, that sounds hyperbolic, but the last four in Melbourne has been the stage for countless epic matches. It was where Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep played a series of lungbusting rallies in 2018, both saving match points, with Halep eventually prevailing 9-7 in the third set. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic clashed in 2012 on one of the slowest hard courts to date, playing points of such attrition that Djokovic looked dead on his feet by the end of the second set and positively mummified by the end of the third (and came back to win the match in five!) And in 2009, Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco played the greatest match I’ve ever seen, a five-hour, 14 minute ballet of violence. Verdasco drilled winner after winner, 95 of them by the time the night was over, while Nadal scampered from corner to corner in a desperate effort to eke out enough errors to avoid getting blown off the court at the Australian Open for a third straight year. It was wonderful.
So when I sat down ahead of the women’s semifinals yesterday, I was pretending to be cautious in my optimism, but really, my expectations couldn’t have been higher. The sun was slowly setting outside Rod Laver Arena, sending this ethereal golden glow creeping across the sky as seagulls begun to settle on the structure (as they do when night falls at the Australian Open). Before the match, there was a fantastically over-the-top light show on the court. The seats were full, all four players were riding distinctly interesting runs through the tournament…it was an incredible atmosphere. I even found the courage to chat a bit with my neighbors.
I don’t think I took a breath for the entire first semifinal. Elena Rybakina and Victoria Azarenka played a first set entirely befitting of two major champions. It was glorious back-and-forth, push-and-pull, all the way until Rybakina claimed the opener 7-6 (4). Azarenka scored the first meaningful blow — at 2-all, 30-all, Rybakina unloaded a 184 km/h serve that landed inches away from the T, but Azarenka read it seamlessly, getting a clean swing on a backhand return. Rybakina was pushed back by its depth and weight, allowing Azarenka to run in and belt a forehand winner. Another great first serve return later, the Belarusian had the first break.
But Rybakina came back instantly, her superpowered groundstrokes vaporizing any anything that dropped a little short or hung up for a split-second. Azarenka is more historically lauded for her return of serve (understandably, given her astonishing returning performance at her 2012-2013 peak and her significantly longer career to this point), but it was Rybakina who did more damage on the return in this match, holding Vika to a mere 6/27 points won on the second serve (I did a double take the first time I saw this stat). Rybakina broke twice in succession, serving for the set at 5-3.
Then she lost her first serve, opening the door for Azarenka to shine again. The two-time Australian Open champion saved a set point with a stunning forehand pass down the line, hit while on the run, and in a blink of deep groundstrokes, found herself up love-40 on Rybakina’s serve at 5-all. Azarenka failed to break, though, despite having looks at second serves on all three break points (one of which she dumped into the net), and in retrospect that was her downfall.
When Rybakina won the tiebreak, despite the respect I had for Azarenka’s fighting spirit and incredible career (this is a woman who once served for a major final against one Serena Williams, after all), I thought the match was over. First sets in big matches are tight a lot of the time, but when one player comes through — especially if they’re the more powerful player — you often see them relax and go for their shots more. With Rybakina having served at a mere 48% in the first set and winning it anyway, I felt that if she went into top gear, she’d be unstoppable. (The second semifinal followed almost the exact same pattern — Aryna Sabalenka snuck out a close first set, then bombed away with her crushing groundstrokes in the second, leaving Magda Linette no chance.)
And sure enough, Rybakina picked up speed in the second set. Azarenka certainly didn’t give up, saving an early break point with another stunning forehand passing shot, but Rybakina was all over her: Azarenka faced break point in every single one of her service games in the second set. Though Rybakina was broken when serving for the match at 5-2, her tennis was alarmingly sharp. By the end of the match, she had more winners than Azarenka (expected) but she also had fewer unforced errors. This is as good a metric to explain the result of the match as any — if the more powerful player also manages to be more accurate, their opponent doesn’t have a chance. There’s just no way to counter pinpoint aggression.
I was exhausted after the first semifinal. It wasn’t that I was unexcited for Sabalenka-Linette, Rybakina-Azarenka was just all-consuming. I felt simultaneously happy for Rybakina and how well she had responded to the lack of recognition for her Wimbledon title and sad for Azarenka, who is experienced enough to know exactly how close to the title she was. I wished I had a couple hours to digest all the emotions before the second semifinal. That said, the match was a great watch anyway — the stylistic contrast between Sabalenka’s raw power and Linette’s never-say-die defense even reminded me a bit of Nadal-Verdasco. (Though the match had the opposite result, with Sabalenka eventually crashing through Linette’s defensive wall.) Verdasco would have nodded knowingly at Sabalenka’s flawless performance in the first-set tiebreak.
The semifinals might have followed a similar pattern, and they did both end in straight sets, but the skill on display from all four players was mindblowing. There were untouchable aces, screaming return winners, eye-wateringly sharp forehand angles hit on the run. I don’t want to exaggerate the quality of the matches, they aren’t ones people will talk about in ten years, but the standard required to make headway was lofty.
Watching major tournaments is a bit like binge-watching an incredibly dramatic TV show. It’s emotional and gratifying, but it’s also hard to fully process all the storylines in real time. You might miss an important detail, then only catch it when you rewatch highlights a month later. The semifinal slate yesterday had four magnetic storylines — Rybakina seeking a second major and the proper recognition that she was denied after winning Wimbledon, Sabalenka striving to win her first major (and make her first major final), Azarenka trying to tap into her Melbourne magic from a decade ago, and Linette aiming to prolong her dream run of giant-killing. Then two of those storylines were cut short within two hours while the two others became more layered and thrilling. I feel like the losing semifinalists’ runs deserve some mourning, but with the Rybakina-Sabalenka final (which very much has the energy of unstoppable force vs. immovable object) looming, dwelling in the past comes at the expense of enjoying the present and future.
Of course, tennis tournaments share that quality with almost everything in life.
2 thoughts on “Acceleration”
Aryna Sabalenka is fantastic player. She definitely deserves to be world’s number one. I believe she will reach it but definitely it won’t be easy, as the WTA competition is very strong.