Australian Open | Preview women’s final – Reigning champion Sabalenka takes on rising star Zheng

The question is always how players return to the place where they won the title a year earlier, especially when it concerns a Grand Slam tournament. A year ago, Aryna Sabalenka won her first Grand Slam trophy in Melbourne, after a high-quality final against Elena Rybakina.

This year she happily continued where she left off, by advancing to the final without losing a set. She is therefore the first player since Serena Williams in 2016-2017 to reach the final at the Australian Open two years in a row. If she wins, she will also become the first player since compatriot Victoria Azarenka in 2012-2013 to successfully defend her title.

A victory over Coco Gauff in the semi-finals meant – in addition to revenge for the lost US Open final – that Sabalenka is assured of retaining the number two position after the tournament. The 25-year-old player is now in the last three majors reached the final on hard court. The only other player to do that in the 21st century was — again — Azarenka. 11 of Sabalenka’s 13 titles were won on this surface.

Australian Open | Sabalenka in the final for the second year in a row after beating Gauff

Rematch

For the second Grand Slam tournament in a row, Sabalenka will face Qinwen Zheng. At the last US Open, the pair met in the quarter-finals, which was her best ever result for the Chinese at a major. Sabalenka won 6-1 6-4. The former world number one said that they also know each other from the training court and that they had sparred just before this Australian Open in the preparations for the event.

“She plays great and is a very nice girl. Her forehand is decent heavy and her best stroke, I think. She moves very well and fights for every point. She is good at putting pressure on opponents with offensive tennis. That means she will enter the top 10,” said Sabalenka about her eager opponent in the final, who will indeed make her debut in the top 10 next week due to her excellent performance in Melbourne.

In the footsteps of Li Na

Almost every step Zheng has taken in Melbourne this year has resulted in a personal first. The 21-year-old player has been known as an enormous talent for some time and was named the 2022 winner for good reason. Newcomer of the Year and in 2023 until Most Improved Player of the Year. In 2022 she rose from 143rd place to the top 25 in the WTA rankings and in 2023 she rose to 15th place in the rankings. Along the way she won her first two titles in Palermo and Zhengzhou.

In addition, she is now following in the footsteps of legendary compatriot Li Na, who exactly ten years ago became the first Chinese player to reach (and win) the final in Melbourne. Remarkably, Zheng only met her childhood idol in person for the first time at this tournament. When asked, the rising star revealed what advice she received from the former world number two: “Don’t think too much and keep it simple.”

Li Na is also an example for Zheng on a commercial level, who, like her compatriot, obtained an exceptional position as a clothing sponsor in her heyday. Nike and — different from others Nike Athletes and under certain conditions — is allowed to wear advertising messages on her clothing.

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Australian Open | Zheng after reaching first Grand Slam final – “Unbelievable!”

Soap

Zheng’s recent rise has been accompanied by a real coaching soap opera. She was assisted from the beginning of 2021 until Roland Garros 2023 by Spaniard Pere Riba, who then switched to Gauff’s team and guided the American to the US Open title.

Zheng, meanwhile, teamed up with leading Belgian coach Wim Fissette, who then (much to her surprise) dropped her to return to Naomi Osaka. Riba, in turn, left Gauff’s team not long after the US Open success and has been reunited with Zheng from this season. “Back to the original,” is how Zheng summarized the striking turn of events.

Moreover, the team with fitness coach Rob Brandsma and manager Marijn Bal also has a significant Dutch touch.

Upgrade

Remarkably, Zheng, herself seeded 12th, did not meet one other seeded player on the way to the final. That has only happened once before in Melbourne in the professional era, when Arantxa Sanchez Vicario reached the finals in 1995. In the semi-finals, Zheng even faced a qualifier (Dayana Yastremska). She knows better than anyone that Zheng can expect a significant upgrade in opposition with Sabalenka as an opponent.

“Sabalenka is one of them big hitters on the tour. She has the hardest serve, forehand and backhand and is a very complete player,” was Zheng’s clear analysis of her impressive fellow finalist. Although Sabalenka is higher than Zheng in most statistics lists, the final debutante has by far the most aces behind her name are this tournament (48).

Given their attacking approach to the game, the recipe will be identical for both players: serve well and be the first to take the initiative in the rally. They can defend excellently, but they prefer not to. Li Na said it best: ‘don’t think too much and keep it simple.’

In addition to 2,000 points, a cash prize of almost two million euros is at stake in the final. The losing finalist leaves with 1300 points and just over one million euros.

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The post first appeared on www.eurosport.nl

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