Tennis

Aryna Sabalenka advances in Melbourne as Billie Jean King wants Wimbledon change

Aryna Sabalenka is through to her fourth Grand Slam semifinal.

Billie Jean King urged Wimbledon to allow Russian and Belarusian players to compete at the All England Club this year as Aryna Sabalenka created the possibility of an all-Belarus Australian Open final.

Sabalenka defeated Donna Vekic 6-3 6-2 and will take on surprise package Magda Linette on Thursday, while Victoria Azarenka plays Russian-turned-Kazakh Elena Rybakina.

With Russian Karen Khachanov through to the semi-finals of the men’s draw and Andrey Rublev also in the quarter-finals, the stakes could not be higher as Wimbledon organizers consider whether to reverse last year’s ban.

Speaking at a press conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the WTA, King said: “Just tell them to play and get their money.

“I hope they do, just keep it the way the others are. Life is too short. The WTA was started for that, so we all wanted one voice to help protect players.”

With the war in Ukraine showing no sign of ending, Wimbledon risks being accused of hypocrisy if the Russians and Belarusians are allowed to play this year, but a continued ban would again put them at odds with the WTA and ATP.

World number five Sabalenka reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2021 and would have been one of the favorites had she been allowed to compete last summer.

I just understand that it’s not my fault. I have no control.

Aryna Sabalenka on the war in Ukraine

Some Ukrainian players continue to call for Russian and Belarusian players to be banned more widely, and Sabalenka said: “I would say that of course it affects me a lot.

“It was hard and it’s still hard. But I just understand that it’s not my fault. I have no control. If I could do something, of course I would, but I can’t do anything. Just that having this understanding really helps me stay strong.”

Asked about the possibility of meeting Azarenka in a first all-Belarusian grand slam final, Sabalenka said: “I really want it to happen. I know Vika will do everything she can to make it happen . I’m going to do everything I can to make it happen. It’s going to be history.”

Spectators were banned from bringing Russian and Belarusian flags into Melbourne Park last week after outrage over a Russian flag being held up during a match between a player from that country and Ukraine.

Sabalenka will certainly be favored to make her first grand slam final after continuing her impressive form against Croatian Vekic.

The fifth seed is yet to drop a set in her nine matches in 2023, combining her trademark power with more control and a renewed confidence in her big serve, which was such a liability last year.

The match was closer than the result suggested but Croatian Vekic, playing in only his second grand slam quarter-final, paid the price serving 13 double faults and taking just one of 10 break points in the first set.

Sabalenka has talked a lot in this tournament about trying to maintain a calmer approach on court, but knows that will be tested as she tries to make it fourth time lucky in the slam semi-finals.

She said: “I feel a little different. I think I lost the three semi-finals just because I wasn’t really calm on the court. I overdid things. I really wanted this slam. I rushed a lot. I was very nervous. Screaming, doing all this.

“Right now I’m a little more calm on the pitch. I really think this is the only thing that was missing in my game.

“So right now it’s going to be a real test for me if I can keep myself calm like I kept myself calm during these previous games.”

Linette continued her surprising run by defeating Karolina Pliskova to reach the semifinals.

The 30-year-old has overtaken compatriots Iga Swiatek and Hubert Hurkacz and becomes the third Polish woman after the world number one and Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the last four in Melbourne.

World number 45 Linette, who knocked out fourth seed Caroline Garcia in the previous round, produced a composed performance in her first grand slam quarter-final to win 6-3 7-5.

When asked how she was able to stay so in control, Linette said, “I don’t know. Maybe I still don’t really believe it.

“I also think I had so much experience on the big courts before because almost every grand slam I ended up on a big court one way or another. I’ve already played so many big players.

“It’s just nothing new to me. Just another game. Sure, it’s way further in the draw. But still, it kind of feels the same.”

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