Aryna Sabalenka landed her second Australian Open trophy on Saturday night in Melbourne when she dispatched Zheng Qinwen, 6-3 6-2, in just 76 minutes, and successfully defended the title that she won here last year.
I think Sabalenka is one of the most tough opponents I have faced. She's a really aggressive player. She takes away the rhythm compared to other players. It is so important to hold your own service game [against Sabalenka], because she had a really good serve. But I couldn't do that. Zheng Qinwen
Sabalenka became the first woman to repeat as Australian Open champion since fellow Belarusian Victoria Azarenka went back-to-back in 2012 and 2013.
The 25-year old used her awesome power to offset all of the challenges the Chinese No 1 could muster in the encounter, particularly on serve, which a couple of years ago had been such a liability.
With her new-found delivery consistency and controlled barrage off the ground, Sabalenka has matured into a formidable force, and, on this day, she was not for turning.
“It’s been an amazing couple of weeks, and I couldn’t imagine myself lifting this trophy one more time,” she said during the trophy presentation, also praising her family and their sacrifices over the years. “I love you so much, and you’re my biggest motivation, and everything I’m doing, I’m doing for you.”
From the moment Sabalenka began her AO title defence, there was an impending sense of inevitability that she could complete the double at Melbourne Park, beginning with a 53-minute 6-0 6-1 demolition of German qualifier Ella Seidel heralding her speedy run to the semi-finals.
Blessed with the lighter half of the draw, Sabalenka did not concede more than 3 games in any set as she breezed into the Last 4, although she was tested there by 19-year old American, 4th-seed Coco Gauff, but she rose to the challenge in such a way that left little doubt that she would repeat her 2023 triumph 2 days later.
Zheng, the World No 12, who will rise to 7 on Monday following her impressive run to the final, was bullied from the outset, and had few chances to relax into her own imposingly aggressive game.
“I think Sabalenka is one of the most tough opponents I have faced,” Zheng said after the match. “She’s a really aggressive player. She takes away the rhythm compared to other players.
“It is so important to hold your own service game [against Sabalenka], because she had a really good serve. But I couldn’t do that.”
Contesting just the 9th major main draw of her young career, the 21-year old showed no nerves, and responded quickly by creating a trio of break points after dropping her opening serve, but Sabalenka saved them all with her relentless power, and dictated points with her heavy groundstrokes as she raced out to a 5-2 lead, losing just a single point on her serve.
Sabalenka held 3 set points on Zheng’s serve before her less experienced opponent fought her way out of trouble with a pair of aces and a forehand winner of her own.
The Chinese saved a 4th set point on the Belarusian’s serve by ripping a forehand down the line, before the Belarusian slammed an un-returnable serve out wide to close out the set.
Zheng began the second set by coughing up 3 double-faults to hand Sabalenka an early break, but she found success with a drop-shot winner and asked questions of the defending champion during a slew of rallies and at the net, but although Sabalenka faltered on an approach volley, she never looked rattled, and crushed every overhead that came her way.
Another ill-timed double-fault by Zheng in the 5th game handed Sabalenka break point and, after a 112 kph second serve, the World No 2 stormed to a commanding 4-1 lead by closing out a 16-stroke rally with a crisp backhand winner.
Zheng saved 4 championship points at 2-5, and created her first break point opportunity of the second set, which the defending champion saw off with an ace, and, seconds later, a clinical cross-court forehand winner clinched Sabalenka the AO 2024 crown.
Her consistency and success are partly attributable to the fact she feels that she has control of any given situation, coach Anton Dubrov and fitness trainer Jason Stacy said after their charge’s win.
Biomechanics specialist Gavin MacMillan helped fine-tune technical aspects of Sabalenka’s game and was able to provide her with much-needed clarity, they added.
“If she did happen to miss a shot, she knew exactly why, and what to do about it, it gives her that sense of control,” Stacy explained.
As a result, instead of being unnerved when a few points don’t go her way, the World No 2 is able to return to her routine and reclaim her rhythm, Dubrov added.
Zheng had no answers for the onslaught, and the 21-year-old was not helped by her 6 double-faults, while, when it was Sabalenka’s turn to serve, the final appeared one-sided as she won 84% of the points in which she landed her first serve and, aside from her opening service game, didn’t give up a single break-point opportunity until the final game, when those pesky championship point nerves kicked in once again.
Sabalenka trailed Zheng in terms of overall winners, 14 to the Chinese’s 19, but she was near-impenetrable on serve, landing 67% of her first deliveries, dropping 6 points behind it, as she became the first player to win the Australian Open women’s final without dropping serve since Serena Williams in 2007.
Zheng battled hard at the end of each set, saving the first 4 set points against her in the first, and the first 4 championship points against her in the second, but Sabalenka was able to fall back on her reliable serve to hold firm both times, and converted her 5th championship point with a clean forehand one-two punch.
The Chinese later admitted that she felt conflicted in the wake of defeat, believing she could ‘do better’ in the final, but feeling proud of herself for reaching that stage in the first place.
Sabalenka’s name is now etched on the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup for a second time, presented to her by the great Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who is in Melbourne celebrating 50 years since she first won the AO title.
“Thank you, Evonne, for being such an inspiration for all of us, and receiving this beautiful trophy from you is a pleasure for me,” said Sabalenka, who was defeated in the US Open final last September, and congratulated Zheng on her run in Australia. “I know this feeling, it’s really tough to lose in the final, but you’re such an incredible player, you’re such a young girl, and you’re going to be in many more finals, and you’re going to get it. I want to say congratulations to you and your team on an amazing job.”
To her team, Sabalenka added: “Thank you so much for being by my side no matter what, without you I wouldn’t be able to achieve so much in this sport.
“I put a little bit of pressure on them after [the] Brisbane final, and we did a little bit better in this one,” she beamed, referencing her 6-0 6-3 defeat earlier this month at the hands of Elena Rybakina.
Sabalenka did not drop a set all fortnight, and has won 28 of her past 29 sets at Melbourne Park, including her 2023 title run, while the only player to get a set off her during this spell was Rybakina in last year’s final.
The most consistent player on the women’s tour at the Grand Slams since her break-through at Wimbledon in 2021, Sabalenka has made the Last 4 in 7 of the past 9 majors, and competed in 3 finals, winning two of them.
Although Iga Swiatek will continue to carry the World No 1 ranking, Sabalenka has closed the gap considerably over the past 15 months, and, with this latest of wins, their rivalry is sure to be the highlight of this season.