Aryna Sabalenka beats Coco Gauff to set up Australian Open final with Zheng Qinwen

Defending champion outplayed the fourth seed 7-6 (2) 6-4 to continue bid to become first player to defend Australian crown since 2013

Aryna Sabalenka has spent the past year methodically cementing her status as one of the dominant players in her sport. As she has learned how to harness her incredible power, she has finally complemented her weapons with relentless consistency. But despite her significant improvements, her nerves continued to haunt her in big matches.

The defending champion entered Rod Laver Arena against Coco Gauff fully conscious of how badly things could go wrong, as they did in their US Open final only four months ago. This time, though, Sabalenka held her nerve throughout a tense, quality encounter worthy of two champions and she outplayed the fourth seed 7-6 (2), 6-4 to return to the Australian Open final.

An extremely complicated match against one of the brightest young stars awaits Sabalenka, the second seed. She will face Zheng Qinwen of China in the final after the 12th seed, one of the most promising young players on the tour, outclassed Dayana Yastremska 6-4, 6-4 on Thursday night to reach her maiden grand slam final.

One year on from her grand slam breakthrough, Sabalenka has used her first triumph as a springboard to further success. Having already reached six grand slam semi-finals in a row, she will now contest her third final in the last five majors. The 25-year-old will also look to become the first player to defend their Australian Open title since Victoria Azarenka, her compatriot, in 2013. She is yet to drop a set.


“Of course that’s tough, but worst case you’re gonna lose it next year, nothing to defend,” said Sabalenka, smiling, on the challenges of defending a major title for the first time. “So I’m [not] 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.”

At the major that styles itself the Asia-Pacific grand slam, Zheng is the second Chinese player to reach the final. The 21-year-old follows in the footsteps of her idol, Li Na, who won her second grand slam title at the Australian Open exactly 10 years ago. “It feels unbelievable,” she said. “I’m super excited to have such a great performance today and arrive in the final.”

Four months ago in New York, Gauff produced a brilliant defensive performance to beat Sabalenka and win her first grand slam title. Her peerless court coverage made the court seem so narrow for Sabalenka, who crumbled mentally as she tried to break Gauff down.

Another battle – this is the first time since 2011 that the US Open finalists have immediately played again in Australia – between the best attack and defence in the world commenced with Sabalenka separating herself early on. Nearly every baseline point played out on her terms; she served incredibly well, only missing two first serves in the opening eight games, and she followed it up with destructive, disciplined aggression.

At 5-3, 30-15, having missed just two first serves in the set, Sabalenka visibly tightened up as Gauff soaked up immense pressure and counterpunched well. Gauff’s forehand, so often vulnerable in big matches, held up impressively and she fired down enormous serves when needed. From 3-5 down, the American served for the set at 6-5, only for her forehand to haemorrhage errors. Sabalenka survived and regrouped, re-establishing her baseline dominance with a brilliant tie-break to take the set.

After the turbulence and dramatics of the opening set, both players competed at a high quality in the second. After eight games, both had kept hold of their serves and swung freely under pressure. Gauff held off Sabalenka for as long as she could before a brilliant return game from the number two seed at 4-4 proved the decisive game in a quality battle.

“It was incredible match,” said Sabalenka. “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.”

Despite the defeat, Gauff reflected on her final grand slam tournament as a teenager with satisfaction. She has backed up her US Open success incredibly well by immediately embarking on another run. There will be more to come.

“A lot of positives to take,” said Gauff. “I didn’t feel like I played bad. I just felt there were certain points that I just didn’t win. Which I prefer this match over the last match that I played. So it’s tough with the result, but I’m trying to look at the positives.”

- Guardian

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