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Dominant Sabalenka overpowers Zheng to retain Australian Open crown

Dominant Sabalenka overpowers Zheng to retain Australian Open crown
27 Jan 2024 17:30

MELBOURNE (REUTERS)


Aryna Sabalenka produced an utterly dominant display to become the first woman in 11 years to retain the Australian Open title and send out a warning to her rivals with her second Grand Slam title on Saturday.

The Belarusian blew away Zheng Qinwen 6-3 6-2 in 76 minutes with a show of power that overwhelmed the Chinese 12th seed, emulating compatriot Victoria Azarenka's 2012-13 feat by winning the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup back-to-back.

Sabalenka came into the match without having dropped a set at the year's first major and stayed perfect to join Ash Barty, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport in the elite club of players to have done so this century.

"I'm speechless right now," Sabalenka said at her press conference as she sipped a glass of wine. "I don't know how to describe my emotions. But definitely I'm super, super happy and proud of everything I was able to achieve so far.
"Yeah, just happy with the level I played today. She's a great player and very tough opponent."

Sabalenka dropped only one set at last year's tournament and her dominance this year is a further reflection of the maturity and emotional control she has built in the last 12 months.

"I didn't want to be a player who won it and disappeared," Sabalenka said. "I wanted to show I'm able to be consistently there and I'm able to win another one.

"That's why no matter what the result, win or lose, we're always working hard, we're always looking for things to improve in my game."

Sabalenka's rip-roaring form has helped her reach at least the semi-finals at the last six majors including at Wimbledon last year, having missed the 2022 event at the All England Club due to Russian and Belarusian players being banned.

Like last year, the trophy will not mention where Sabalenka comes from as she is competing without national affiliation under conditions imposed on Russian and Belarusian players in tennis since Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

MONSTER GROUNDSTROKES

Sabalenka shrugged off the politics to roar through the tournament losing only 30 games along the way, with her biggest test coming against US Open champion Coco Gauff in a rematch of their title clash at Flushing Meadows.

Playing in her third Grand Slam final, Sabalenka unleashed monster groundstrokes to grab the contest by the scruff of the neck with an early break for 2-0.

Thousands of Chinese supporters in the stadium and millions more back home cheered Zheng on as she went 40-0 up on Sabalenka's serve only for the Belarusian to win five straight points and hold.

The charismatic 25-year-old Sabalenka has a massive Melbourne fan base of her own and she rode the vociferous Rod Laver Arena support to take the opening set, serving out at the second attempt after Zheng had saved four set points.

Zheng showed she was slowly growing in confidence by firing up her own big forehand amid the traditional rallying cry of "Jia You" - literally "add oil" - from her compatriots in the crowd.

All that did was fuel Sabalenka, however, and a clean crosscourt winner earned her a break point in the first game of the second set with Zheng's double fault handing it to her on a platter.

Zheng, who was bidding to match the 2014 feat of her idol and compatriot Li Na in winning the Australian Open, saw her hopes fade after two more errors on serve left her 4-1 down.

Sabalenka stumbled a little at the line but finally closed out the most one-sided final since Azarenka beat Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-0 in 2012 with another thunderous forehand winner on her fifth championship point.

She raised her arms in triumph before running to her team and patting the bald head of fitness trainer Jason Stacy, which she has been signing in marker pen as a pre-match ritual throughout the tournament.

Zheng, meanwhile, cut a disappointed figure as she pondered what might have been.

"I wasn't playing my best tennis, I wasn't feeling that good out there," she said.

"I think I can learn more with the loss today and then I hope next time I can come back as a better tennis player and come back stronger."

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