Sabalenka earns chance to defend Open crown as Zheng charges into final


Sabalenka earns chance to defend Open crown as Zheng charges into final

By Marc McGowan

The Australian Open’s defending champion has her revenge – and can now turn her focus to winning back-to-back titles.

Aryna Sabalenka made no secret after her quarter-final demolition of Barbora Krejcikova that she wanted to banish the memory of last year’s US Open final defeat to Coco Gauff by beating the American in their rematch almost 17,000 kilometres away in Melbourne.

Buoyed by warm support from the Melbourne Park crowd, Aryna Sabalenka has booked her spot in the women’s singles final.Credit: Eddie Jim

Sabalenka conceded no more than three games in any of her 10 sets en route to the Australian Open semi-finals, but predictably had a far tougher time of it against Gauff before prevailing 7-6 (7-2), 6-4 in an absorbing contest.

The victory also means the 25-year-old Belarusian holds on to her world No.2 ranking, which fourth-seeded Gauff would have taken if she won on Thursday night.

Sabalenka will meet Chinese 12th seed Zheng Qinwen in Saturday night’s final as she attempts to become the first woman to claim consecutive singles titles at Melbourne Park since her compatriot Victoria Azarenka in 2012-13.

Zheng overcame a slow start to defeat Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska, 6-4, 6-4, in another impressive performance, but mustered only five games off Sabalenka in the US Open quarter-finals.

“It was an incredible match. She’s a great player, [they are] always tough battles against her,” Sabalenka said of Gauff.

“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.”

Sabalenka burst out of the blocks in typically bombastic fashion, winning the first seven points and snatching a 2-0 lead, but some bloopers at the net saw her give the break straight back.

That set the scene for a rollercoaster opening set, with both players unable to serve it out – Sabalenka at 5-3, then Gauff at 6-5. The American teenager had major issues on her second serve, committing six of her eight double faults in the first set and winning only three of 17 points off it.

Gauff failed to land a single first serve in the tiebreaker, and Sabalenka punished her for it with a series of destructive blows on her way to taking a one-set lead, as she did in New York.

There was no coming back this time around for Gauff, but there was still nothing straightforward about the second set.

Gauff dodged multiple break points in the first game of the second set before the returner won only one point across the next five games, then she saved one more – when a Sabalenka backhand return landed narrowly long – to edge 4-3 ahead.

It was Sabalenka’s turn to face pressure in the ensuing game.

Coco Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka embrace after their semi-final match.

Coco Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka embrace after their semi-final match. Credit: Eddie Jim

She lost just her second service point for the set to start, then found herself at 0-30, only to strike three straight forehand winners in a breathtaking few minutes before holding for four-all a point later.

Gauff again found trouble and saved one more break point, but not a second as a cross-court backhand landed wide to as good as seal her fate.

Speaking afterwards, Gauff said she felt she played better in this clash than the US Open final despite the result being reversed.

“A loss is a loss. I had my chances, yes, but also I put myself in a good position because she had her chances to easily lose that first set, too, after being up 5-2 [then] serving for it,” Gauff said.

“At this stage, in any tournament, but especially a grand slam, whether I lost one and one, or like I did today, or in a third-set tiebreaker; I still think it would hurt just as much. I am disappointed because I did feel good going out on the court. But, at the end of the day, she was the better player … I feel like I have a lot to improve.”

Chinese star charges into final on 10-year anniversary of Li Na’s title

Chinese rising star Zheng Qinwen will have the chance to replicate her countrywoman Li Na’s Australian Open title triumph a decade ago after a straight-sets semi-final win on Thursday night.

Zheng, 21, advanced to her maiden grand slam final with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska on the exact date, January 25, that Li won the 2014 final over Dominika Cibulkova.

Qinwen Zheng advanced to her maiden grand slam final with straight-set win over Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska.

Qinwen Zheng advanced to her maiden grand slam final with straight-set win over Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska.Credit: Eddie Jim

The WTA’s reigning most improved player met the Chinese superstar and dual major champion for the first time last weekend and could become her country’s second-ever grand slam singles winner.

“I believe in the destiny. Yes, I do. But, I try not to let other things affect me, even if destiny,” Zheng said.

“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 … [Li] means a lot, I think, for all the Chinese kids in the same age like me because she’s the first one who won the slams.

“That’s unbelievable for Asian women, then she gives a lot of hope, in that moment, [to] young kids like me.”

Defending champion Aryna Sabalenka, the tournament’s No.2 seed, awaits Zheng on Saturday night as she chases more history for China.

“It feels unbelievable. I’m super excited to have such a great performance today,” Zheng said.

“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. I’m trying to control my emotions right now.

“I’m sure the final will be really competitive because I think Sabalenka is one of the biggest hitters right now in the tour. She’s got the biggest serve, biggest forehand, a big backhand. She’s really [a] complete player.

“I haven’t faced a big seed all the past rounds, and she will be the first one I will face, but it’s a match, so let’s see what’s going to happen in the final there.”

Zheng and Yastremska spent the early stages of the match trying to assert dominance over the other from the baseline, and they traded breaks in the second and third games.

But Zheng rose to the occasion, just as she did in her quarter-final win over Russian Anna Kalinskaya, when she had to recover from losing the opening set.

She produced some stout defence in the eighth game, followed by a spectacular cross-court backhand winner that zipped past Yastremska at the net to restrict her to 0-30 – and it was soon 0-40.

Yastremska rallied back to deuce despite grimacing mid-game with what looked a lower abdomen issue on her right side, but consecutive wayward strokes delivered the all-important break.

The world No.93 took a medical time-out and returned reinvigorated, but Zheng’s defence again came to the fore – something she will need in spades against final opponent Sabalenka – as she staved off a break-back point and went 5-3 ahead before clinching the set soon after.

They again traded breaks early in the second set, with Yastremska remaining aggressive.

The difference was Zheng was able to harness her weapons that little bit better and tighten her errors as she ripped the contest away from her opponent, reeling off 11 points in a row to go 5-3 up. There were no wobbles as she served for a final spot, moving her one step closer to matching Li’s feat.

Watch all the Australian Open action live on Nine, 9Gem, 9Now and ad-free on Stan Sport.

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