Sabalenka repays Gauff, faces Zheng in Australian Open final

Defending champion Aryna Sabalenka avenged a US Open final loss to Coco Gauff and became the first woman since Serena Williams to reach back-to-back finals at the Australian Open on Thursday.

Sabalenka attacked Gauff’s serve with her powerful returns and unloaded 33 winners in the 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory that extended her winning streak to 13 matches at Melbourne Park.

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

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

Sabalenka will face Zheng Qinwen in Saturday’s championship decider after the No. 12 seed defeated Dayana Yastremska 6-4, 6-4. Zheng and No. 93-ranked Yastremska were both playing in their first Grand Slam semifinal.

“It feels unbelievable. I’m super excited to have such a great performance today and arrive in the final,” said Zheng, who hasn’t faced a player ranked in the top 50 in six rounds.

Second-seeded Sabalenka is on a 13-match roll at Melbourne Park, where she made her Grand Slam breakthrough last year. Williams reached consecutive finals here in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Sabalenka will set her sights on becoming the first woman to win consecutive Australian Open titles since Victoria Azarenka in 2012 and 2013.

“I’d say emotionally I’ll be very ready to fight. Not going crazy,” Sabalenka told reporters. “Because when you play your first final, you get emotional and rush things sometimes. When you’re third time in the finals, you’re like, OK, it’s a final. It’s OK. It’s just another match. You’re able to separate yourself from that thing. Just focus on your game.”

Gauff went into the semifinals unbeaten in 2024 after winning a title in Auckland, New Zealand. The 19-year-old American was on a 12-match winning streak in majors and attempting to be the first player since Naomi Osaka in 2020-21 to win the US Open and Australian Open titles back to back.

She had worked out how to beat Sabalenka in New York in September to win her first major title but didn’t have the answers this time against the only player in the final four with semifinal experience in Australia.

“Tough match for me tonight. Overall a positive tournament,” Gauff said. “I had chances in both sets, but she played better tonight. I think it just came down to a couple of points, and that’s tennis.

“At this stage in any tournament, but especially a Grand Slam, whether I lost 6-1, 6-1, or like I did today, or in a third-set tiebreak, I still think it would hurt just as much.”

The first set contained six service breaks, with both players missing opportunities to serve it out.

Sabalenka led 5-2 and missed a set point as Gauff held firm and went on a four-game roll to take a 6-5 lead. Gauff also couldn’t serve it out, with Sabalenka’s booming returns continuing to cause her trouble.

In the tiebreaker, Sabalenka raced to a 5-1 lead. Chants of “Coco, Coco” went up around Rod Laver Arena, but they didn’t help Gauff.

Almost a half hour after her first set point, Sabalenka got five more. She clinched on the second of those with a big serve out wide.

Gauff was able to win points on only three of her 17 second serves in the first set, and that made her push harder and led to double faults.

The second set was tight, until Sabalenka got a service break in the ninth game. She missed her first match point when Gauff saved with a forehand winner to end a 12-shot rally.

An ace down the middle earned a second match point, and Sabalenka clinched the victory after 1 hour, 42 minutes.

“I really enjoy playing [Gauff]. She’s an incredible player. Win or lose, it’s great matches,” Sabalenka said.

“I really hope in the future we’re going to play many more finals. Of course, I hope I win them all,” she added with a laugh.

Between Zheng and Yastremska, the points were short and sharp for most of the match and followed the same pattern in both sets, with the two swapping breaks early before Zheng snared the extra break in the seventh game both times.

In the first set, Zheng was able to keep up the pressure on Yastremska, blasting cross-court winners off both wings, and left the 23-year-old Ukrainian clutching her abdomen in pain. After taking a medical timeout off court, Yastremska returned with Zheng holding in the next game.

Yastremska extended the set by winning the following game with a clever drop shot, but she piled on the errors in the next game to hand Zheng the first set.

Zheng started off stronger in the second set, holding her first service game to love and then snatching an early break after a string of errors from Yastremska, but the Ukrainian player broke straight back.

Zheng broke again in the seventh game, helped by a double fault from Yastremska and a shanked shot that flew long. Yastremska held in the next game, with Zheng missing an easy smash, but the Chinese player snared the win with an unreturnable serve.

“The feeling is incredible to arrive at my first Grand Slam final,” said Zheng, the first Chinese player to reach a major title clash since Li Na won the 2014 trophy at Melbourne Park. “That’s my dream since I was a kid. Right now I’m really happy, but I know there’s still another fight to go. I’m trying to control my emotions.”

Zheng lost in the US Open quarterfinals to Sabalenka last year in her best previous run at a major.

After her victory, Sabalenka acknowledged tennis greats in the crowd, including Billie Jean King and Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who was celebrating the 50th anniversary of her first Australian Open title.

“I couldn’t dream [of] playing in front of you,” Sabalenka said. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for our sport. It’s a privilege to play in front of you.”

She signed a towel during her postmatch interview that will be auctioned, with proceeds going to children and women affected by domestic violence.

Gauff entered the Australian Open needing six wins to reach 50 in Grand Slams before turning 20. She has 49. That she didn’t win a second major as a teenager wasn’t a huge concern.

“I tend to be hard on myself, so I feel like, today, was like, ‘Dang!'” she said. “But I think looking back overall at this stage of my life, it was a successful time.

“… “I am really proud of myself. I did want to win a Slam as a teenager, and I did that. I was hoping to get No. 2, or at least give myself a chance to get No. 2. I feel it can only go upwards from here.”

Yastremska, who said she felt pain in her abdomen during the warmup before her injury flared up in the first set, was pleased with her run and revealed she had been flooded with messages from Ukrainians.

“I think I made them a bit happy. These are tough moments now in Ukraine,” Yastremska said, referring to the ongoing invasion by Russia. “They got some nice moments to enjoy watching me play, and I did my best. I tried to bring them a little bit of joy.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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