Ominous Sabalenka sets up Australian Open semi-final with Linette

Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka celebrates victory against Croatia's Donna Vekic during their women's singles quarter-final match on day ten of the Australian Open in Melbourne on 25 January, 2023AFP

Aryna Sabalenka set up a semi-final with surprise-package Magda Linette on Wednesday at the Australian Open, where Novak Djokovic will later step up his bid for a 22nd Grand Slam title.

Belarusian Sabalenka looks red-hot favourite to win her first major crown after another ruthless display in defeating Croatia’s Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-2 at Rod Laver Arena.

Fifth-seeded Sabalenka is the highest remaining seed left in a women’s draw that has been upended by shocks.

Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka (L) shakes hands with Croatia's Donna Vekic after her victory

The match was closer than the score suggested, but Sabalenka is in scintillating form – she is yet to drop a set in Melbourne and has won all nine matches in 2023.

It is a far cry from a year ago, when she struggled badly with her serve and was reduced to tears at an Australian Open warm-up tournament.

“It feels really special to be in the semi-finals here, it was a tough match,” said Sabalenka, 24, who was competing in her first Australian Open quarter-final.

“I’m super happy with the win and it was so great to play here today (Wednesday), the atmosphere was unbelievable.”

Sabalenka will play unseeded Linette for a place in Saturday’s final after she marched into her first major semi-final at the age of 30.

Linette stunned former world number one Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 7-5 to continue flying the flag for Poland after the shock exit of world number one Iga Swiatek.

Poland's Magda Linette celebrates victory against Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova during their women's singles quarter-final match on day ten of the Australian Open in Melbourne on 25 January, 2023

“I’m so emotional, I can’t really believe it,” said Linette, ranked 45 in the world.

“It’s a dream come true. I’m super grateful and happy. Thank you for cheering and supporting, I really needed this.

“So we keep going. I don’t want to get too excited because we are still in the tournament,” added the Pole, who will break into the top 30 for the first time.

Two-time Melbourne champion Victoria Azarenka will face Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina in the other semi-final.

Djokovic faces Rublev test

Djokovic can take a step closer to equalling Rafael Nadal’s men’s record of 22 Grand Slam titles when he faces Andrey Rublev for a place in the semi-finals.

The 35-year-old Serb is hot favourite to win a record-extending 10th Melbourne crown and with his hamstring seemingly recovered he will take some stopping.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates victory against Australia's Alex De Minaur during their men's singles match on day eight of the Australian Open in Melbourne on 23 January, 2023

He called his three-set mauling of Australian 22nd seed Alex de Minaur on Monday his best match of the year so far.

“Tonight (Monday), the way I played, the way I felt, gives me reason now to believe that I can go all the way,” he warned afterwards.

Djokovic is the only man left in a depleted draw to have won a Grand Slam before.

But even with his left hamstring much improved, Russian fifth seed Rublev will be no pushover.

The 25-year-old showed all his battling qualities to save two match points against talented Danish teenager Holger Rune in the last 16, scrapping his way to victory in five dogged sets.

The other men’s quarter-final is an all-American affair between two unseeded players, Ben Shelton and Tommy Paul.

The 20-year-old Shelton is on his first trip outside the United States.

The first semi-final has already been confirmed, with third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas facing Russian 18th seed Karen Khachanov.