Zheng follows her idol to Australian Open final but Sabalenka is toughest test

Chinese player inspired by Li Na’s 2014 triumph but Belarusian opponent is defending champion in Melbourne

Australian Open women’s singles final,
Zheng Qinwen (12) v Aryna Sabalenka (2),
Saturday, 8.30am Irish time — Live on Eurosport

Ten years ago, Li Na finally secured the title she had coveted for so long. While the Chinese trailblazer’s first major triumph at Roland Garros in 2011 produced an unexpected, iconic moment in the history of tennis, the Australian Open was her labour of love. Li had already reached two finals in Melbourne, twice suffering brutal three-set defeats, before she finally won the tournament of her dreams in 2014.

Among the tens of millions of people who watched Li’s second triumph in China, one future star was transfixed. At 11 years old, Zheng Qinwen had already spent over three years of her life training in Wuhan, Li’s home city, a five-hour drive away from her hometown of Shiyan. She would spend her youth trying to retrace her idol’s footsteps; Zheng eventually headed to Beijing, where she trained under Li’s former coach, Carlos Rodriguez.

“After Li Na, tennis became a more popular sport in China, thanks to her a lot,” said Zheng last year. “She also put a dream seed in my heart that I want to become like that.”

On Saturday night, Zheng will have a chance to become the second Chinese singles Grand Slam champion as she plays for the Australian Open title against Aryna Sabalenka, the second seed, in her first major final.


It has been clear for some time that the 21-year-old is a special player. In 2022, she was named the WTA newcomer of the year after rising from outside the top 100 into the top 30. Last year, having reached the top 15, she was promptly crowned the WTA’s most-improved player.

Zheng’s weapons are varied and forceful. An excellent athlete and mover, she is armed with one of the most vicious forehands on the tour, its heavy, wicked topspin capable of tearing apart all defences. Despite its technical issues and low percentage, Zheng’s serve is brutally effective when it lands in, perfectly complementing her forehand. Although her heavy topspin and lengthy swings meant she initially thrived on clay court, Zheng is becoming increasingly effective on faster courts.

While a Grand Slam run was always on the cards, Zheng’s journey to her first Slam final has been strange. With the exodus of seeds in the top half of the draw, she is the beneficiary of one of the easiest paths to a Grand Slam final in recent history. Zheng has not faced a single top-50 player after six matches in Melbourne and only one top-75 opponent. Her highest-ranked opponent was Katie Boulter, ranked 54, in the second round.

Zheng’s draw does not diminish the achievement of becoming a Grand Slam finalist and the 12th seed maintaining her composure while being heavily favoured to win every match has been impressive, but it is certainly not ideal preparation for the challenge and level that awaits her.

Last year was a tipping point in Sabalenka’s career. Inspired by the dominance of Iga Świątek, she finally learned how to control her power and temperament as she produced a consistent, high level of tennis throughout the season. Her great year could have been even greater, if not for her mental frailty deep in the biggest tournaments.

Through her difficulties, though, Sabalenka’s resilience has been deeply impressive. She just keeps on coming back. Last year, each time she suffered a heartbreaking loss that could have derailed her progress, she immediately refocused. After ending the 2023 season with the disappointment of being narrowly beaten to the year-end number-one ranking by Swiatek, despite leading the WTA race for most of the 2023 season, Sabalenka instantly recovered at the beginning of this year.

No player has come close to reaching the level that the Belarusian has produced throughout the past two weeks. Despite all the potential stressors, from her sophomore season as a Grand Slam champion to her first experience as a defending champion, Sabalenka has played with freedom and bulldozed everyone in her path. But now with a trophy on the line, it remains to be seen if she can replicate that attitude and see out the job.

For Zheng, the primary objective in her first final should just be to play with as few inhibitions as she can and to see where her weapons and athleticism take her. It was a sentiment perfectly underlined by Li herself when the pair spoke to each other for the first time last week. Li, who returned to Melbourne this year to mark her 10-year anniversary by playing in the legends’ competition, surprised the youngster during an interview. When Zheng asked for some advice from her experienced elder, she received a simple response: “Don’t think too much.” — Guardian