Defending champion Sabalenka beats Coco Gauff, will meet Zheng in Australian Open final

Zheng lost in the U.S. Open quarterfinals to Sabalenka last year in her best previous run at a major. She's into the final a decade after Chinese star Li Na won the Australian title.
Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus celebrates after defeating Coco Gauff of the U.S. in their semifinal match at the Australian Open (Photo | AP)
Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus celebrates after defeating Coco Gauff of the U.S. in their semifinal match at the Australian Open (Photo | AP)

MELBOURNE: Aryna Sabalenka avenged a U.S. Open final loss to Coco Gauff and will take a 13-match Australian Open winning streak into Saturday's championship decider against first-time finalist Zheng Qinwen.

Defending champion Sabalenka attacked Gauff’s serve with her powerful returns and unloaded 33 winners in the 7-6 (2), 6-4 semifinal victory on Thursday night.

No. 12-seeded Zheng had a 6-4, 6-4 win over No. 93-ranked Dayana Yastremska, ending the Ukrainian player's bid to become the second qualifier to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era after 2021 U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu.

Zheng lost in the U.S. Open quarterfinals to Sabalenka last year in her best previous run at a major. She's into the final a decade after Chinese star Li Na won the Australian title.

Li reached two finals in Australia before clinching the 2014 final.

“It feels unbelievable. I'm super excited to have such a great performance today and arrive in the final,” said Zheng, who hasn't faced a player ranked in the top 50 in six rounds.

Taking on No. 2 Sabalenka will be a big step up for the 21-year-old Zheng, who is playing in a major for the ninth time.

Sabalenka said she was “ready for anything” against Gauff, and happy to have some support after facing the 19-year-old American in New York last September.

Sabalenka was back in the semis for the fifth straight major, a run that started here in Australia last year in her Grand Slam breakthrough. She's the first to reach consecutive finals here since Williams in 2015, '16 and ’17.

“The key was that I was able to stay focused no matter what, no matter what the score was ... keep fighting for it,” Sabalenka said on the difference between her last two matches against Gauff. “I’m super happy to be in another final of the Grand Slam. Hopefully I can do a little bit better than the last time.”

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus celebrates after defeating Coco Gauff of the U.S. in their semifinal match at the Australian Open (Photo | AP)
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Gauff went into the semifinals unbeaten in 2024 after winning a title in Auckland, New Zealand.

The 19-year-old American was on a 12-match winning streak in majors and attempting to be the first player since Naomi Osaka in 2020-21 to win the U.S. Open and Australian Open back to back.

She'd worked out how to beat Sabalenka at the U.S. Open to win her first major title, but didn't have the answers this time against the only player in the final four with semifinal experience in Australia.

The first set contained six service breaks, with both players missing opportunities to serve it out.

Sabalenka led 5-2 and missed a set point as Gauff held firm and went on a four-game roll to take a 6-5 lead. Gauff also couldn’t serve it out, with Sabalenka’s booming returns continuing to cause her trouble.

In the tiebreaker, Sabalenka raced to 5-1. Chants of “Coco, Coco” went up around Rod Laver Arena but they didn't help Gauff.

Almost a half-hour after her first set point, Sabalenka got five more. She clinched on the second of those with a big serve out wide.

Gauff won points on just three of her 17 second serves in the first set, and that made her push harder and led to six double-faults.

The second set was tight, until Sabalenka got a service break in the ninth game.

She missed her first match point when Gauff saved with a forehand winner to end a 12-shot rally.

An ace down the middle earned a second match point and Sabalenka clinched it after 1 hour, 42 minutes.

Gauff entered the Australian Open needing six wins to reach 50 in Grand Slams before turning 20. She has 49. That she didn't win a second major as a teenager wasn't a huge concern.

“I tend to be hard on myself, so I feel like, today, was like, 'Dang!'” she said. “But I think looking back overall at this stage of my life, it was a successful time.”

She said she saw statistics that ranked her close to Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati in the teenage seasons.

“I looked at that stat and I’m like, ‘They had great careers. So I’m in the right direction,’” she said. "I just have to remind myself of the journey and not so much of the moment.

“I am really proud of myself. I did want to win a Slam as a teenager, and I did that. I was hoping to get number two, or at least give myself a chance to get number two. I feel it can only go upwards from here."

In doubles, 43-year-old Rohan Bopanna and Matthew Ebden advanced to their second consecutive Grand Slam men’s final by beating Zhang Zhizhen and Tomas Machac 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7).

Tournament officials said Bopanna and Ebden, at a combined age of 79, will become the oldest No. 1 pairing in tennis history after the tournament.

Bopanna and Ebden, ranked second in men’s doubles, will play Italian pair Simone Bolelli and Andrea Vavassori on Saturday in the final.

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus celebrates after defeating Coco Gauff of the U.S. in their semifinal match at the Australian Open (Photo | AP)
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