Aryna Sabalenka has been steadily solidifying her position as one of the top players in her sport over the past year. By mastering the use of her impressive strength, she has successfully balanced it with unwavering consistency. However, despite her notable progress, she still struggles with nerves during important matches.
The previous winner approached Coco Gauff on Rod Laver Arena with a clear understanding of the potential for things to go awry, as they did during their previous encounter at the US Open just four months prior. However, this time, Sabalenka remained composed and played a high-quality, intense match befitting of two champions. As a result, she defeated the fourth seed 7-6 (2), 6-4 and secured a spot in the final of the Australian Open.
Sabalenka, the second seed, is set to face a tough opponent in the final: Zheng Qinwen of China, the 12th seed and a rising star in the tennis world. Zheng defeated Dayana Yastremska 6-4, 6-4 on Thursday night to secure her spot in her first ever 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.
Sabalenka acknowledged that defending a major title for the first time is difficult, but even if she were to lose it next year, there would be no pressure to defend it. She explained that she is not ignoring the pressure, but rather shifting her focus and it has been successful thus far. She is determined to give her best effort in the upcoming competition.
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.”
In New York four months ago, Gauff displayed exceptional defensive skills to defeat Sabalenka and claim her first grand slam championship. Sabalenka struggled to break Gauff’s impenetrable court coverage and ultimately succumbed to the pressure.
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.
During the match at 5-3 and 30-15, Sabalenka struggled as Gauff handled the pressure and made successful counterpunches. Gauff’s usually unreliable forehand held strong and she delivered powerful serves when necessary. Despite being down 3-5, Gauff served for the set at 6-5, but her forehand began to make mistakes. Sabalenka managed to recover and regain control of the game, winning the set with a strong tie-break performance.
Following a turbulent and dramatic first set, both players displayed a high level of competition in the second set. Despite facing pressure, both managed to maintain their serves and play with confidence. Gauff fought hard against Sabalenka, but at 4-4, the No 2 seed’s excellent return game ultimately determined the outcome of the intense match.
Sabalenka described the match as amazing and acknowledged the difficulty of facing the opponent. She believes that her ability to maintain focus and give her best effort regardless of the score was the key to her success.
Even though she lost, Gauff looked back on her last major tournament as a teenager and felt content. She has continued her success from the US Open by quickly starting another streak. There will be more achievements in the future.
Gauff stated that there were many favorable aspects to reflect on. Despite not feeling like she played poorly, she acknowledged that there were key moments where she didn’t come out victorious. However, she expressed that she would rather have played this match than her previous one. While the outcome was difficult, she is trying to focus on the positives.