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Sabalenka sees off Gauff to return to final

  • Dan Imhoff

Reigning champion Aryna Sabalenka will contest back-to-back Australian Open finals after stifling Coco Gauff’s charge in straight sets on Thursday night.

Sabalenka’s 7-6(2) 6-4 triumph avenged a defeat from the pair’s last meeting in last year’s US Open decider and made her the first woman since Serena Williams eight years ago to reach back-to-back Australian Open finals.

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Under a closed roof at a Rod Laver Arena she has made her own in the past two years, it was a markedly different Sabalenka to that of four months ago, when she stumbled with a set and a break in hand before a raucous New York crowd.

On Thursday night, the second seed steadied after a 5-2 first-set lead almost slipped from her grasp and held her nerve with the finish line in sight.

“[The crowd in New York] actually motivated me a lot… At the US Open they were crazy,” Sabalenka said. “You know, it's motivation, but… at some time it's getting really annoying because they scream during the point and I totally understand that. It's absolutely normal, they support their player.

“Going to this match today, I knew that probably people will be supporting me more than her, and it was really nice to feel that kind of support like she had at the US Open. So, yeah, it was really enjoyable playing today.”

In the first Australian Open semifinal showdown between two top-four opponents since Williams beat Agnieszka Radwanska eight years ago and the first at any Slam since Garbine Muguruza denied Simona Halep at Roland-Garros in 2018, this was a clash not short on hype.

For an hour and 44 minutes, through two tightly contested sets, it delivered on its promise and world No.4 Gauff became the highest-ranked player Sabalenka had denied at a major.



“I think in New York I played a little bit passive tennis. I didn't put so much pressure on her,” Sabalenka said. “I mean, I did in the first set, but then I kind of slowed down and start just trying to play rallies with her, which is not working well.

“The whole preseason I was working on those approach shots, on coming to the net and finish the point on the net.

“I'm super happy that I was able to do that on court today, and I think that's the difference between these two matches.”

Sabalenka realised her potential in her maiden major final a year ago. The goalposts have shifted as she attempts to become the first woman since Victoria Azarenka 11 years ago to defend her title.

“I would say emotionally I'll be… very ready to fight, not going crazy,” she said. “Because when you play first final you get emotional and rushing things sometimes. When you're third time in the finals, you're, like, ‘okay, it's a final, it's okay’.

“It's just another match, and you're able to separate yourself from that thing. Just focus on your game. That's it, actually… I'm defending champion, but worst case, I'm, like, ‘okay, I'm gonna lose this tournament, and it's less points to defend next year’. Then that's it.

“That's kind of like helping me to just stay focused and just try your best in each match without thinking about defending something.”

Twelfth seed Zheng Qinwen earned the right to face the reigning champion for the title on Saturday night after she became the first Chinese Grand Slam singles finalist since Li Na a decade ago with victory over Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska.