Australian Open: Sabalenka Powers Past Gauff In Return To Melbourne Final

Aryna Sabalenka (photo: Tennis Australia/Alex Coppel)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, January 25, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

Aryna Sabalenka played aggressive tennis against Coco Gauff from first ball to last and the defending champion booked her return to the Australian Open final after defeating the American teenager, 7-6 (2), 6-4 on a rainy summer Thursday evening in Melbourne.

The World No. 2 and 2023 AO champion Sabalenka was successful in avenging her US Open final loss to Gauff, 19, in advancing to her third major final. It was Gauff’s first loss in her last 13 Grand Slam singles matches.

On Saturday evening, Sabalenka will oppose No. 12 seed Zheng Qinwen of China, who advanced to her first major final by defeating Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska, 6-4, 6-4. Sabalenka will be an overwhelming favorite against Zheng, a first-time finalist.

“It was [an] incredible match,” Sabalenka mused for reporters in her news conference, laughing at times. “She’s a great player, always tough battles against her. I think the key was that I was able to stay focused no matter what, no matter what the score was, I just keep trying my best, keep fighting for it.

“Of course, I’m super happy to be in another final of the Grand Slam. Hopefully I can do a little bit better than the last time.”

At 25, Sabalenka has become the first woman since Serena Williams (2015-17) to reach back-to-back Australian Open finals. If she beats Zheng, she would become the first woman to garner consecutive titles in Melbourne since Victoria Azarenka in 2012 and 2013.

With her blistering power and sharp focus, Sabalenka has rolled to six consecutive victories during the Australian fortnight – scoring victories against qualifiers Ella Seidel and Brenda Fruhvirtova, No. 28 seed Lesia Tsurenko, Amanda Anisimova, No. 9 seed Barbora Krejcikova and Gauff – without losing a set. Along the way, she’s improved her 2024 won-loss record to 10-1. Her only blemish was a loss to World No. 3 Elena Rybakina in the Brisbane final at the start of the month.

Against Gauff, Sabalenka hit 33 winners to 28 unforced errors and won more than half (55 percent) of her net exchanges. She converted four of 10 break-point chances and outpointed Gauff 82-68. By contrast, Gauff managed just 22 winners but made 20 unforced errors and committed eight double faults. She broke Sabalenka’s serve in three of four opportunities, but it wasn’t enough. One stat that stood out: Sabalenka had seven return winners to zero for Gauff.

After a roller-coaster opening set that was decided by a tie-break, things settled down in the second set. Then, at 4-all, Sabalenka asserted herself and broke after Gauff misfired on a backhand return for a 5-4 lead. She served out the victory in the next game, which included her fourth ace up the T.

Now, Sabalenka is back in another major final. She was asked to describe the experience of defending a Grand Slam title for the first time.

“Worst case, you’re going to lose it – [and] next year, nothing to defend,” Sabalenka quipped. “So, I’m kind of, like, I don’t know, not like I’m ignoring the pressure. I’m just shifting my focus and it’s working well so far.

“It’s one more to go, and I’ll do my best.”

By the time the next major rolls around — the French Open in May — Gauff will no longer be a teenager. The Floridian turns 20 in March. She remained positive as she reflected upon her defeat to Sabalenka.

“Yeah, tough match for me tonight,” she told reporters in her final news conference of the Australian fortnight. “Overall, a positive tournament. I had chances in both sets, but she played better tonight. I felt like I did my best with the game plan that I had. I think it just came down to a couple of points, and that’s tennis. …

“I tend to be hard on myself. So, I feel like today I was, like, ‘Dang.’ But I think looking back of, like, overall this stage of my life, like, it was obviously a successful time.

“I saw a stat that I think I’m up there with Serena [Williams] and [Jennifer] Capriati with the wins at slams [as a teenager]. I saw that and it made me feel – I don’t know, I just feel like I look at the glass half empty, so I’m negative. Then I looked at that stat and I’m like they had great careers. So, I’m like I’m in the right direction. I just have to remind myself of the journey and not so much of the moment.”

There will be better days ahead for the talented Gauff, no doubt, and it’s hard not to imagine there will be more major titles won in her future.

“I am really proud of myself. I did want to win a slam as a teenager, and I did that. Obviously today I was hoping to get No. 2, or at least give myself a chance to get No. 2,” she said.

“It didn’t happen, but I feel like I’m there, yeah. So hopefully I can go only upwards from here.”

Inspired by Li Na, Zheng reaches first major final

World No. 15 Zheng Qinwen of China, the only remaining seed (12th) in the top half of the draw, became the first Chinese player since Li Na to reach a major final after defeating 93rd-ranked qualifier Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine, 6-4, 6-4, in an hour and 42 minutes.

While the loss ended the remarkable run of eight Melbourne wins by Yastremska (three in qualifying and five in the main draw) and halted her bid to become just the second qualifier to reach a major final in the Open Era after 2021 US Open champion Emma Raducanu, it propelled Zheng into her first Grand Slam at age 21.

Zheng won 76 percent of her first-serve points and backed it by garnering 50 percent of her second-serve opportunities. She overcame 19 unforced errors and two breaks of her serve by hitting 15 winners and broke Yastremska’s serve four times in 11 chances. By the end, Zheng had outpointed her opponent 72-58.

“The feeling was incredible to arrive at my real first Grand Slam final,” Zheng described in her post-match press conference. “That’s my dream since I was a kid. So right now for sure I’m really happy, but I know there is still another fight to go.”

Through her first six victories in Melbourne – against Ashlyn Kruger, Katie Boulter, Wang Yafan, Ocean Dodin, Anna Kalainskaya and Yastremska – Zheng has yet to face a seeded player. She’s simply played the draw she’s been dealt and won all of them. Next, she will play the World No. 2 Sabalenka, whom she lost to in last year’s US Open quarterfinals, 6-1, 6-4.

“I’m sure the final will be really competitive,” Zheng said, “because I think Sabalenka, she’s one of the biggest hitters right now in the tour. She got the most big serve, most big forehand, big backhand. She’s really complete player.

“I haven’t faced big seeded all the past rounds and she will be the first one I will face. But, you know, [it] is a match, so let’s see what is going to happen [in] the final there.”

Zheng was asked by a reporter if she believes in destiny. After all, it’s the 10th anniversary of Li Na’s second Grand Slam title at the 2014 Australian Open and on the same date, Zheng has become the second Chinese player in history to reach a Grand Slam final.

“I believe in the destiny,” Zheng said. “Yes, I do. Yeah, like you say, but, you know, I try to don’t let other things affect me even if destiny.

“You know, when everything is working well, I believe in the destiny. But if the destiny doesn’t go on my side, I don’t believe that at all (smiling). Only depends where destiny goes (smiling). Yeah.”

First Nations Days will be known as Evonne Goolagong Cawley Day

Four-time champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley was honored on the 50th anniversary of her 1974 Australian Open victory.

Around Melbourne Park

India’s Rohan Bopanna and Matthew Ebden of Australia, the second seeds, advanced to their second major final as a team at the Australian Open with their 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (10-7) victory over unseeded Tomas Machac of the Czech Republic and Zhang Zhizhen of China on Rod Laver Arena Thursday afternoon.

Bopanna, who will rise to Doubles No. 1 at age 43 next week, and Ebden recovered to win a third-set match tie-break after seeing a 5-2 lead evaporate. They are 6-0 in tie-breaks during the tournament.

“It’s amazing to be back in another Grand Slam final, and a different Grand Slam,” Bopanna said. “Especially I think, I know for Matt it’s definitely the home Grand Slam. For me also I consider this a lot to be the home Grand Slam, coming from the Asian continent.”

Bopanna and Ebden will be opposed by Simone Bolelli and Andrea Vavassori. The Italian duo defeated Germany’s Yannick Hanfmann and Dominik Koepfer, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (10-5) to continue their outstanding run in Melbourne.

Meanwhile, No. 2 seeds Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan and Elise Mertens of Belgium reached the Australian Open doubles final with a riveting 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 victory over No. 3 seeds Storm Hunter of Australia and Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic in two hours and 35 minutes with the roof closed on Margaret Court Arena due to rain on Thursday.

It was a match involving four players who all have been ranked WTA World Doubles No. 1 and a reunion for Hsieh and Mertens, who won a Grand Slam title together at Wimbledon in 2021. This is their first major together since the 2021 season.

“It’s a little bit different because we haven’t played for few years,” Hsieh said in their news conference. “But I know what she doing, so I was watching her at home on the TV. I have a big TV to make sure I follow all the girls.”

In the final, Hsieh and Mertens will oppose either No. 11 seeds Lyudmyla Kichenok of Ukraine and Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia or No. 4 seeds Gabriela Dabrowski ofmCanada and New Zealand’s Erin Routliffe, last year’s US Open champions, who face off in the other semifinal on Friday.

Thursday’s Australian Open results

Friday’s Australian Open order of play

By the numbers

“Quotable …”

“I am having fun. I feel like if I ever get to a moment where I stop having fun, I would take a break.

“There was, like, a couple points in the match where I, like, I’m always having fun generally but you’re so competitive, but there was a couple of shots where I was just, like, this is fun, this atmosphere is fun, and I want to enjoy it as long as possible.

“I think for me the most important thing is to continue that, having fun. Even though tonight I lost, it was still a great competitive match. You know, I watched these matches growing up and, like, watching Serena and watching Sharapova lose, like, these matches. It seems like when you’re in it, it feels like the end of the world. But then when you look at history, they didn’t let one match define their career.

“I’m not going to let this match — I’m going to dwell on it tonight, but as Brad [Gilbert] told me as soon as the match was over, the sun is going to rise tomorrow and you have a new chance to live a good day.

“Tomorrow, I don’t know, I’m going to try to go to the movies or something, be proud of myself.”

Coco Gauff, during her post-match news conference, reflecting upon a reporter’s question, “Are you still having fun.”