Australian Open: Super Sabalenka sinks Linette to reach first grand slam singles final

By Sports Desk January 26, 2023

Aryna Sabalenka reached uncharted territory in her career by fending off Magda Linette to set up an Australian Open final showdown with Elena Rybakina.

Only a year ago, Sabalenka's game was in crisis as she struggled horrendously with serving yips, but now a first grand slam singles title match awaits the Belarusian.

She scored a 7-6 (7-1) 6-2 victory over unseeded Polish player Linette on Rod Laver Arena, recovering from going an early break down in the first set before taking command of the contest.

Trailing 2-0 and 30-all on serve, Sabalenka ripped a brilliant forehand winner on the run and yelled "Come on!", looking to gee herself up. It did the trick as she won the game to gain a foothold, then came from 40-0 behind in Linette's next service game to break back.

Neither player had a further break point before the tie-break, which fifth seed Sabalenka dominated, before racing 4-1 ahead in the second set.

The 24-year-old, facing an opponent six years her senior, gave Linette precious little hope of a comeback. Linette admirably staved off three match points at 5-1 down, holding serve to keeping Sabalenka waiting, but the deepest grand slam run of her career is over.

Now opportunity knocks for Sabalenka in the biggest match of her life at the weekend, her 20th WTA-level singles final, with Wimbledon champion Rybakina standing in her way.

Data slam: Taking a straight line to glory

Sabalenka has won 10 out of 10 matches in 2023 so far, landing a title in Adelaide before embarking on this run in Melbourne. More impressive than that is all the wins have come in straight sets. She had lost three slam singles semi-finals leading up to this Linette clash, but now that hurdle has been cleared.

ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS

Sabalenka – 6/2
Linette – 1/1

WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS

Sabalenka – 33/25
Linette – 9/16

BREAK POINTS WON

Sabalenka – 3/7
Linette – 1/4

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  • Switzerland 1-1 Germany: Late Fullkrug leveller secures Group A top spot for hosts Switzerland 1-1 Germany: Late Fullkrug leveller secures Group A top spot for hosts

    Niclas Fullkrug proved the last-gasp hero as Germany avoided a shock upset to top Group A at Euro 2024 after snatching a 1-1 draw with Switzerland on Sunday.

    Dan Ndoye's first international goal seemed set to seal a famous win for Switzerland and ensure them top spot in Group A, but Germany's towering substitute stepped up in the dying seconds in Frankfurt.

    Ruben Vargas thought he had doubled Switzerland's advantage late on, only to be denied by the offside flag, and that decision proved pivotal when Fullkrug headed in his 92nd-minute leveller.

    That late intervention ensured Germany finished top of the group and will face second place in Group D in the last 16, while Switzerland's top-two finish sets up a meeting with the runners-up of Group B.

    The host nation started brightly once again and thought they had taken another early lead when Florian Wirtz teed up Robert Andrich, who squeezed his shot past Yann Sommer into the near post.

    However, the Bayer Leverkusen midfielder was denied his first international goal after a VAR check as Jamal Musiala was deemed to have fouled Michel Aebischer in the box during the build-up.

    Nagelsmann's team instead found themselves behind for the first time in the tournament just before the half-hour mark after Ndoye crashed Remo Freuler's whipped cross past the helpless Manuel Neuer.

    Just moments later, Ndoye offered Germany another scare, racing past Antonio Rudiger before fizzing an angled shot just wide of the far post. 

    Nagelsmann's half-time message was clear as Musiala looked to make it three goals in three games with a powerful hit from the edge of the box, but Sommer was equal to the attempt.

    Toni Kroos drilled a low shot wide under pressure before Kai Havertz glanced a header over the bar as Germany failed to find their clinical edge.

    Joshua Kimmich had the best chance to equalise from close range in the 71st minute, but an incredible last-ditch block by Manuel Akanji denied him.

    Vargas was left one-on-one with Neuer shortly after and slotted into the far corner, but the assistant referee was quick to flag for offside as Switzerland celebrations were short-lived.

    Havertz's looping header bounced off the crossbar as Germany sought a response, which arrived when Fullkrug made his impact off the bench, thumping a header home from David Raum's left-sided delivery.

    Neuer's record-breaking day salvaged by Fullkrug

    Neuer had already made history in their opening game at Euro 2024 as he became Germany's outright top appearance maker at major tournaments, surpassing Philipp Lahm.

    Now, on his 37th start for his country, only Cristiano Ronaldo (45) has played more games across the Euros and World Cup than him, while he has also made the most appearances among goalkeepers in the history of the competition (18, moving ahead of Gianluigi Buffon).

    The 38-year-old could not mark a special day with a win, though, as Germany's long wait for a comeback victory when trailing at half-time stretched to 11 matches in the competition (D2 L9).

    Their last such win came at Euro 1976 against Yugoslavia (2-0 down at half-time, won 4-2), but Neuer and Co. can at least celebrate top spot after late drama in Frankfurt.

    Ndoye steps into the spotlight

    Xherdan Shaqiri grabbed the headlines in Switzerland's 1-1 draw with Scotland last time out after scoring in a sixth consecutive major tournament, but with him on the bench on Sunday, the Red Crosses needed others to step up.

    In his 14th start for the national side, Ndoye netted for the first time, becoming Switzerland's second-youngest goalscorer in the history of the Euros at 23 years and 242 days, after Johan Vonlanthen against France in 2004 (18y 141d).

    Despite going off in the 65th minute, Ndoye had the most shots for Switzerland (two of their three), creating an expected goals tally of 0.52 as he proved their biggest threat.

    Though Switzerland will rue their late concession, they are now unbeaten in their last four meetings with Germany – a promising sign as the last-16 awaits.

  • France v Poland: Deschamps remains calm despite Les Bleus' struggle for goals France v Poland: Deschamps remains calm despite Les Bleus' struggle for goals

    France manager Didier Deschamps says he is "not concerned" with his side's recent struggles in front of goal ahead of their final Euro 2024 group game against Poland on Tuesday.

    Les Bleus are all but through to the knockout stages of the European Championships, sitting joint-top of Group D with four points, but need to avoid defeat to ensure progression.

    Yet France's only goal at the tournament so far has come courtesy of Maximilian Wober turning into his own net in the opening 1-0 victory over Austria, before a goalless draw with the Netherlands on Friday.

    France failed to score with any of their 15 shots in a wasteful display against the Oranje as Deschamps went without Kylian Mbappe, who was only fit enough for the bench due to his broken nose.

    Asked about Les Bleus' profligate showings, Deschamps responded: "I am not concerned. It is just the name of the game.

    "Sometimes you have countless chances and don't hit the back of the net, and sometimes it is the other way round.

    "I would be worried if there were not any chances. Efficiency at high-level football is important, and it is something we can work on.

    On Mbappe's fitness, Deschamps added: "Everything is going in the right direction; he is recovering from the shock, there is the haematoma part which will diminish each day, he will get used to his mask, which modifies the vision a little. But he is fine."

    Poland became the first side to be eliminated from the tournament following France's draw, after they lost their opening matches to the Netherlands (2-1) and Austria (3-1).

    They have faced their own problems without Robert Lewandowski, who missed the start of the tournament due to a hamstring injury before appearing from the bench against Austria.

    "We are depressed by this result, but we still have one more game in our group, and we need to put our best foot forward and try to win three points," Lewandowski said.

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    France – N'Golo Kante

    N'Golo Kante was a surprise inclusion in Deschamps' squad for the tournament after a two-year absence from the national side, but his performances so far have earned him the Player of the Match award in their opening two games.

    The midfielder has made more major tournament appearances without losing than any other European player, with France unbeaten in all 17 games he has played across the Euros and World Cup (W12 D5).

    Poland – Piotr Zielinski

    Poland may be out of the tournament but will be desperate to go down fighting, with Piotr Zielinski again expected to be key here.

    Zielinski has been directly involved in more shots than any other Poland player at Euro 2024 (11 – seven shots, four chances created), as well as completing the most passes for his side (68) across the first two rounds.

    MATCH PREDICTION: FRANCE WIN

    This will only be the third meeting between France and Poland in a major tournament, and the first at the Euros. Poland won a third-place play-off match 3-2 at the 1982 World Cup, while France triumphed 3-1 in the round of 16 at the 2022 World Cup.

    Including all competitions, France are unbeaten in their last eight meetings with Poland (W4 D4), since losing a friendly match 4-0 in August 1982.

    Les Bleus simply need to avoid defeat to qualify for the knockout stages, and they are unbeaten in their eight games in the group stage at the Euros under Deschamps (W4 D4), with their last such defeat coming on MD 3 versus Sweden at Euro 2012 (2-0), under Laurent Blanc.

    Meanwhile, Poland have lost both of their games at Euro 2024 so far but have never previously suffered three defeats in a single group stage at a major tournament.

    Poland have lost their final group stage match in three of their four previous appearances at the European Championships, with the exception being a 1-0 win against Ukraine in 2016 – the only time they have reached the knockout rounds of the competition.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    France – 73.9%

    Draw – 14.8%

    Poland – 11.2%

  • The Numbers Game: England desperate to build momentum against Slovenia ahead of last 16 The Numbers Game: England desperate to build momentum against Slovenia ahead of last 16

    England know a win, but more importantly, a performance is needed when they face Slovenia in Cologne on Tuesday. 

    The Three Lions squandered the opportunity to secure qualification to the knockout stages of Euro 2024 after a lacklustre display against Denmark last time out.

    Harry Kane's 18th-minute opener had given Gareth Southgate's side an early advantage but, much like in their opening 1-0 win against Serbia, England then failed to capitalise on an early lead.

    This time they were punished on Thursday when Morten Hjulmand's effort from distance levelled proceedings, with Denmark perhaps unfortunate to not claim all three points. 

    Many involved with England have already acknowledged they must improve and alterations are expected in an attempt to build momentum heading into the last 16, should they get there. 

    Here, we use Opta data to preview the Three Lions' final Group C clash.

    What's expected?

    England are expected to win and top Group C, with the Opta supercomputer handing them a dominant 75.5% chance of getting the job done in Cologne.

    Slovenia are predicted a meagre 10.4% likelihood of claiming a maiden triumph against their opponents in the same data-led simulations, with a draw forecast slightly higher at 14.1%. 

    This will be only England and Slovenia’s second encounter at a major tournament, with the Three Lions winning 1-0 in the group stages of the 2010 World Cup, but Southgate's men have a fine record in this meeting.

    Slovenia have failed to win any of their six matches against England across all competitions (D1 L5). Greece and fellow Group C side Denmark are the only opponents they have faced on more occasions (seven) without ever winning a single match.

    Yet Matjaz Kek may fancy an upset here as the normally resolute England defence has come under fire at Euro 2024. The Three Lions have faced five more shots than they have attempted in Germany (17 shots, 22 faced).

    They have failed to have more attempts than their opponents in five of their last seven Euros group stages (1992, 2000, 2004, 2012, 2020), something that hasn't happened in any of their last seven World Cup group stage appearances between 1998 and 2022.

    England are also averaging just 8.9 shots per game at the Euros under Southgate (80 in nine games). Going into Matchday 3, that is the lowest shots per game any nation has had under a manager to take charge of them in more than five matches at the European Championship on record (since 1980).

    Southgate will be desperate for his side to rediscover the creative spark that some of their star players have found so easy to muster with their clubs. 

    Changes expected for England, but who will Southgate turn to?

    With a plethora of attacking talent, the right blend of experience and youth, along with players picked to travel to Germany based on current form, England arrived at Euro 2024 among the favourites to win the tournament. 

    However, any form of cohesion and fluidity is yet to transpire for Southgate's side as jeers echoed around the Frankfurt Arena from the travelling contingent after their underwhelming display against Denmark. 

    Kane, who scored 44 goals in all competitions in his debut 2023-24 season for Bayern Munich, had the least touches (22) of any England player who started the game on Thursday, while also managing just one touch in the Danes' penalty area. 

    England's attacking quartet of Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and Kane managed 114 goals between them in all competitions last season, yet Southgate's men managed just two shots on target, forcing the Three Lions boss into a triple change with 20 minutes to go.

    Eberechi Eze, Jarrod Bowen, and Ollie Watkins were introduced but created just one opportunity of note. Meanwhile, Anthony Gordon and Cole Palmer are still yet to make an appearance in the tournament, despite combining for 33 Premier League goals for Newcastle United and Chelsea respectively last term.

    Despite creating more chances (three) and playing more line-breaking passes in the final third (five) against Denmark, it looks likely that Trent Alexander-Arnold's time in midfield could be up, but it remains to be seen who will replace him. 

    Chelsea's Conor Gallagher has replaced him in England's last two games, but only completed 82.4% of his 17 passes against Denmark, also collecting a yellow card for his troubles. 

    Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton are possible replacements and have shown in the Premier League they are more than capable of stepping up, yet an appearance alongside Declan Rice in midfield would mark both's first feature at a major tournament.

    All or nothing for Slovenia

    Slovenia know they must achieve the unlikely to keep their Euro 2024 journey alive, with their confidence taking a hit after coming inches away from securing a maiden success at the European Championships. 

    Luka Jovic's leveller in Thursday's 1-1 draw with Serbia marked the latest result-altering goal in a Euros match of all-time (excluding extra-time), with his equaliser timed at exactly 95 minutes.

    That late heartbreak leaves Slovenia winless across five matches at UEFA's flagship international tournament (D4 L1).

    It had started well for Kek's side when Zan Karnicnik netted his second international goal, but Slovenia succumbed to a familiar fate.

    Their opener was only the second time they'd gone ahead in a game at the finals, with the other instance coming against Yugoslavia at Euro 2000 when Slovenia led 3-0 before collapsing to a 3-3 draw.

    Benjamin Sesko showed the greatest promise for Slovenia, having the joint-most shots (two) and shots on target (one) for his side, but was loose in possession, ending the game with a pass accuracy of 55.8% – the second-lowest in the team. 

    Yet there is still hope for Kek as Slovenia are unbeaten in their last eight games in all competitions (W4 D4), only enjoying a longer such run once in history (nine games between September 2020 and March 2021).

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    England – Harry Kane

    While much was made of Kane's performance against Denmark, there is no denying the quality he offers the Three Lions in and around the penalty area.

    The Bayern Munich striker has only managed two touches in the opposition box at Euro 2024 so far, the same total as both Kyle Walker and Alexander-Arnold.

    Yet Kane still scored his fifth goal in his last six appearances at the tournament, with only Wayne Rooney (six) and Alan Shearer (seven) managing more Euros goals for England.

    Slovenia – Petar Stojanovic

    With England expected to dominate possession on Tuesday, Slovenia's defence will have to be at their best to give them any chance of getting something from the game. 

    Right-back Petar Stojanovic won possession 11 times against Serbia, with only Ales Ceh at Euro 2000 against Spain (14) managing to win the ball back more often for Slovenia in a major tournament game.

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