Sport

TENNIS

Sabalenka edges Gauff to set up Australian Open final against Zheng

Sabalenka edges Gauff to set up Australian Open final against Zheng
Aryna Sabalenka celebrates a point at the 2024 Australian Open women’s semifinal singles match against Coco Gauff of the US. (Photo: Andy Cheung / Getty Images) | Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine in action during her women’s singles semifinal against Qinwen Zheng of China. (Photo: AAP Image / Joel Carrett) | Qinwen Zheng of China during her women’s singles semifinal against Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine. (Photo: AAP Image / Joel Carrett) | Coco Gauff of the United States celebrates a point against Aryna Sabalenka. (Photo: Andy Cheung / Getty Images)

China’s Zheng Qinwen could become only the second player from her country to win a tennis singles Grand Slam.

Aryna Sabalenka continued her confident march towards a second successive Australian Open crown with a 7-6(2) 6-4 victory over Coco Gauff in a blockbuster semifinal on Thursday to set up a title decider against Chinese 12th seed Zheng Qinwen.

sabalenka australian open

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in action during her Australian Open women’s singles semifinal against Coco Gauff of the US in Melbourne on 25 January 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Joel Carrett)

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Zheng Qinwen of China celebrates match point in the Australian Open women’s semifinal against Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine in Melbourne on 25 January 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Joel Carrett)

Zheng ended qualifier Dayana Yastremska’s remarkable run 6-4 6-4 in the day’s second semi, but will be long odds to land her first Grand Slam title against the second seed on Saturday and match compatriot Li Na’s triumph a decade ago.

Sabalenka again looked in almost irresistible form as she avenged her loss to Gauff in last year’s US Open final in a high-quality contest to reach the championship match without losing a set for the second year in a row.

The American teenager, also looking to land her second Grand Slam title, is one of the most athletic players in women’s tennis and tore around Rod Laver Arena to stay in the contest until the Belarusian’s power finally overwhelmed her.

“It was an 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.

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

The two reigning hardcourt Grand Slam champions made contrasting starts as Belarusian Sabalenka fired an ace and revved up her forehand to hold before pouncing on two double faults by Gauff to break.

sabalenka zheng gauff australian open

Coco Gauff of the US hits a forehand during her women’s singles semifinal against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on 25 January 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mast Irham)

Gauff hit back right away and the pair swapped breaks again but the 19-year-old New York champion continued to teeter on her serve, allowing Sabalenka to settle her nerves after going 6-5 down in a frantic spell to clinch the first set in a tiebreak.

The pair were locked together until 4-4 in the second set as Sabalenka countered Gauff’s speed with power and the 25-year-old second seed edged ahead with a decisive break when the teenager hit a shot long before sealing victory with two massive serves.

“I think it just came down to a couple of points, and that’s tennis,” said Gauff, who was playing her last Grand Slam as a teenager.

“I’m going to dwell on it tonight but … the sun is going to rise tomorrow. Tomorrow, I don’t know, I’m going to try to go to the movies or something … be proud of myself.”

Brilliant shot-making

While the opening semifinal was between the world number two and four, the second pitched Zheng, the only seed left in the top half of the draw, against 93rd-ranked qualifier Yastremska.

The match was just as tight with Yastremska, the first women’s qualifier to reach the last four at Melbourne Park since 1978, belying her lowly ranking with some brilliant shot-making, particularly off her rocket of a backhand.

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Qinwen Zheng Qof China in action during the Australian Open women’s semifinal against Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine in Melbourne on 25 January 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mast Irham)

Zheng was named most improved player on the WTA tour and showed why by maintaining a consistently high level with her serve and groundstrokes as her opponent’s waxed and waned, particularly after she pulled up clutching her abdomen.

She was still troubled by Yastremska’s returns into the second set, however, and the Ukrainian put huge pressure on Zheng’s serve before the Chinese 21-year-old managed to break for 4-3 and held on to stand on the brink of victory.

Yastremska held her final service game and got to 30-30 as her opponent served for the match, but Zheng summoned up two thumping service winners before holding aloft her arms in triumph.

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Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine gestures during her women’s singles semifinal against Qinwen Zheng of China at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on 25 January 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Joel Carrett)

“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 won the 2014 trophy at Melbourne Park.

“That’s been 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.”

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 Ukraine’s conflict with 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.” Reuters/DM

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