Aryna Sabalenka is set for another final in Melbourne as the 25-year-old Belarusian has become the first player since Serena Williams in 2016 and 2017 to reach back-to-back Australian Open finals.
Sabalenka, seeded at No. 2, defeated fourth-seeded Coco Gauff 7-6 (2) 6-4 in the Australian Open semifinal to register her sixth straight-set win at Melbourne Park this year. Now, Sabalenka is set for her second Australian Open final and her third Grand Slam final.
In 2023 January, Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam final at the Australian Open, in which she created an impressive comeback to beat Elena Rybakina 4-6 6-3 6-4 in three sets and become a Slam champion. 12 months later, Sabalenka is having another really strong run at Melbourne Park and has come one win away from defending her title.
The last player to reach back-to-back Australian Open finals was Williams, who finished as runner-up at Melbourne Park in 2016 before winning her 23rd and last Grand Slam title at the 2017 Australian Open.
2 - Aryna Sabalenka is the first player since Serena Williams in 2016-2017 to reach back-to-back finals at the Australian Open in Women’s Singles. Back.#AusOpen | @AustralianOpen @WTA @WTA_insider pic.twitter.com/r7orVxpWYU— OptaAce (@OptaAce) January 25, 2024
Sabalenka gets her revenge on Gauff and makes the Australian Open final
After winning her first Grand Slam title at the 2023 Australian Open, Sabalenka was also close to winning her second Grand Slam at the US Open in September. Playing in her second Grand Slam final, Sabalenka made a very strong start before Gauff came back to win 2-6 6-3 6-2.
On Thursday, Sabalenka and Gauff were playing for the first time since their US Open final. This time, Sabalenka made some tactical changes and it worked well for the Belarusian.
Against Gauff, Sabalenka claimed the first break in the second game but got broken back instantly in the third game. After blowing an early break, Sabalenka broke Gauff again in the sixth game for a 4-2 lead.
Leading 5-3, Sabalenka failed to serve out for the first set in the ninth game - missed out on a set point on Gauff's serve in the 10th game - then got broken in the 11th game. Up 6-5, Gauff also had 30-0 on her serve and it looked like the American would complete a major comeback in the first set.
But then, Sabalenka won the next four points to force a tie-break, in which she opened a 4-0 lead before converting her third set point to win a tight opener.
After winning the first set, Sabalenka had a chance to start the second set with an early break but missed out on two break points in the first game. Sabalenka also didn't convert a break point in the seventh game but managed to break Gauff in the ninth game for a 5-4 lead. Serving for the match in the 10th game, Sabalenka realized her second match point to complete a two-set win over Gauff.
"I think in New York I played a little bit of passive tennis. I didn't put so much pressure on her. I mean, I did in the first set, but then I kind of, like, slowed down and start just trying to play rallies with her, which is not working well," Sabalenka said.
"The whole preseason I was working on those approach shots, on coming to the net and finish the point on the net. I'm super happy that I was able to do that on court today, and I think that's the difference between these two matches."
Sabalenka on one of the key moments against Gauff
When Gauff was 6-5 and 30-0 up on her serve, Sabalenka was inches away from losing the first set. But Sabalenka managed to win the next couple of points and break back Gauff in the key moments and force a tie-break, which she routinely won. In her press conference, Sabalenka was asked to address that particular moment.
"Well, honestly in my head I just let that set go. I was just, like, okay, we're going to fight for another one. Still, that's what I meant when I said, like, no matter what the score was, I was just trying to do my best and fighting for it," Sabalenka explained.
"Even when the score was 6-5, 30-Love to her serve, I was just like, okay, I'm going to do my best, try to stay in this set and try to fight for this set."
In the Australian Open final, Sabalenka will face world No. 15 Zheng Qinwen. When Sabalenka and 21-year-old Zheng clash against each other, it is going to be their second meeting.
In their first and lone meeting, Sabalenka ousted Zheng 6-1 6-4 in the 2023 US Open quarterfinal. But Zheng is in the midst of her career-best tournament and Sabalenka underlines that she absolutely won't be taking the 21-year-old Chinese for granted
"Well, I think her forehand is really heavy. Yeah, and she's moving well also. Fighting for every point," Sabalenka said of Zheng.
"I think her forehand is really, I don't know, yeah, her best shot. I would say forehand, it's quite heavy. Yeah, she played really great tennis, putting her opponents under pressure, playing really aggressive tennis, and I think that's why she's -- she will be top 10, right? That's why she's in top 10."