Aryna Sabalenka overcomes Coco Gauff challenge to reach another grand slam final

By Sports Desk January 25, 2024

Aryna Sabalenka has her sights on a second straight Australian Open title after a successful revenge mission against Coco Gauff.

Gauff denied Sabalenka a second grand slam title of the year with victory in the US Open final last summer but her winning run at the majors came to an end with a 7-6 (2) 6-4 defeat under the roof on Rod Laver Arena.

Sabalenka will now be a big favourite to successfully defend her title at Melbourne Park on Saturday when she takes on first-time slam finalist Zheng Qinwen, who defeated Dayana Yastremska 6-4 6-4.

Sabalenka has been in tremendous form this fortnight, not losing more than three games in any set prior to this semi-final meeting.

Gauff’s stellar powers of defence, which turned the tables in New York after she had lost the first set, ensured she got significantly closer than any of Sabalenka’s previous opponents, but it was still not enough.

“It was (an) incredible match,” said the second seed. “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. I just kept trying my best, kept fighting for it.

“Of course I’m super happy to be in another final of the grand slam. Hopefully I can do a little bit better than the last time.”

Gauff made a poor start, with five double faults in her first three service games helping Sabalenka open up a 5-2 lead.

But Gauff’s ability to get one more ball back in play better than anyone else in the women’s game had put Sabalenka into meltdown mode in New York and she threatened the same here.

Sabalenka failed to serve out the set at 5-3 and Gauff saved a set point in the next game before making it four games in a row, the crowd gasping as the Belarusian pushed a forehand wide with the whole court at her mercy.

Gauff was two points away from taking the set but Sabalenka refused to let history repeat itself and forced a tie-break, where she put on a display of awesome power that even the athletic American could find no answer to.

The second was nip and tuck but Sabalenka got the crucial break at 4-4 and served out the victory to become the first woman since Serena Williams in 2016 and 2017 to reach successive finals here.

Gauff looked emotional leaving the court but she rated her performance as better than in the US Open final, saying: “I felt like it wasn’t a great match for me. Yes, I won. I think I played better tonight.

“I wish I could have made more first serves. I think that was the difference. She had a higher first-serve percentage, and it’s tough to also go for the second when you double-faulted a couple times.

“I put myself in the position to serve out the set. At the end of the day, it came down to a couple of points. Same in the second.”

The 19-year-old immediately found perspective at the end of her final slam as a teenager, saying: “I watched these matches growing up, watching Serena (Williams) and (Maria) Sharapova lose these matches.

“When you’re in it, it feels like the end of the world. But then, when you look at history, they didn’t let one match define their career.

“I’m going to dwell on it tonight but, as (coach) Brad (Gilbert) told me as soon as the match was over, the sun is going to rise tomorrow and you have a new chance to live a good day. Tomorrow I’m going to try to go to the movies or something, be proud of myself.”

Twelfth seed Zheng has kept her head while the more fancied players in the top half of the draw have fallen around her.

Yastremska was trying to emulate Emma Raducanu by reaching a grand slam final as a qualifier but she came out second best in a big-hitting encounter.

Zheng, who has not yet faced a top-50 opponent, is the first Chinese player to make it to a slam decider since Li Na won the title here a decade ago.

The 21-year-old said: “It feels unbelievable. I’m super excited to have a such a great performance today and arrive in the final.”

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