Aryna Sabalenka gains sweet revenge on Coco Gauff to reach Australian Open final

World No 2 will defend title against Zheng Qinwen at Melbourne Park on Saturday

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Aryna Sabalenka will defend her Australian Open crown against Zheng Qinwen in the final on Saturday following a straight-sets last-four victory over Coco Gauff.

The world No 2 gained sweet revenge on the American teenager, who came out on top when they clashed in the US Open final last September.

Gauff denied Sabalenka a second Grand Slam title of the year with that victory at Flushing Meadows but her winning run at the majors came to an end with a 7-6, 6-4 defeat under the roof on Rod Laver Arena.

By beating Gauff, 19, the Belarusian becomes the first player since Serena Williams in 2016 and 2017 to reach back-to-back Australian Open finals.

It proved to be her toughest assignment at the tournament so far, having dropped just 16 games leading into the match.

“I was able to focus on myself. I was prepared that she was going to move well and put all the balls back and I was just ready for anything,” Sabalenka, 25, said. “That was the key, and the support here.”

“It's always a great fight [against Gauff]. She's a great player and I enjoy playing her,” she added. “I really hope that in the future we are going to play many more finals.”

With the roof closed due to rain, Sabalenka raced through her opening serve to love then promptly broke Gauff, who opened with two double faults and won just one point in the first two games.

The American woke up and got back in the contest immediately with Sabalenka shanking two volleys on her next serve, opening the door for a break.

But Gauff's serve again deserted her, with two more double faults in the sixth game handing the Belarusian another break point that she converted with a net volley.

Sabalenka was in control at 5-2, but inexplicably lost composure to drop four games in a row before breaking back as Gauff served for the set to take it to a tiebreak, which she dominated.

Gauff saved two break points in a crunch 11-minute game to open the second set before the match settled into a more normal rhythm, with eight straight service holds.

That all changed in the ninth game when Sabalenka dialled up the pressure, attacking Gauff's second serve to break for 5-4 when the American whipped a backhand wide. It was the opening she needed, serving out for the win.

“It was a tough match for me,” said Gauff, who looked close to tears while she left Rod Laver Arena. “Overall, it was a positive tournament. I had chances in both sets, but she played better.

“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.

“But that wasn't the fault, either. Because I put myself in the position, I cleaned up the first set, put myself in the position to serve out the set. At the end of the day, it came down to a couple of points.”

Standing in the way of Sabalenka mounting the first successful women's title defence at Melbourne Park since countrywoman Victoria Azarenka in 2013 is Zheng, who defeated Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska 6-4 6-4.

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

But the 23-year-old should hold her head up high after becoming the first qualifier since 1978 to reach the semi-finals.

Zheng, who will be playing her first Grand Slam final, becomes the first Chinese player to reach the Australian Open women's final since Li Na, who won the title in 2014.

“It feels unbelievable,” the 12th seed said. “I'm super excited to have such a great performance today and arrive in the final. I think the opponent she's playing unbelievable tennis and has got a really good baseline stroke.

“It's tough to explain my feelings now. It's my real first time here in Australia. Thanks for all the support and thanks for my team as well.”

Updated: January 25, 2024, 1:33 PM