Dom. Feb 25th, 2024

MELBOURNE, Australia — The first serve Zheng Qinwen sent down to Aryna Sabalenka in Saturday’s Australian Open women’s final was slapped back over the net with so much venom that it almost passed the world No. 12 before she was able to jam her racket down on it.

It was that familiar sign of immediate intent from Sabalenka, something which had held her in great stead this fortnight at Melbourne Park. It also left little doubt in anyone’s mind as to which player would be dictating terms in this match.

For 75 minutes, Sabalenka bullied her Chinese counterpart, smashing her way to Australian Open glory for the second time in as many years. Her 6-3, 6-2 triumph over Zheng capped one of the most dominant runs to a Slam title in tennis history, with Sabalenka a perfect 14-14 in sets, dropping just 31 games en route to the title.

Sabalenka never allowed first-time major finalist Zheng a moment to relax. The world No. 2 feasted on her serve, that same serve which had proved Zheng’s greatest weapon in her journey to the final. If Sabalenka didn’t strike a near-unreturnable ball, it was only a matter of seconds before she was in control of the point and had her opponent scrambling behind the baseline.

Zheng had no answers for the onslaught. Instead, the barrage from the other side of the court appeared to drain her confidence. The 21-year-old double faulted six times, three of them in her first service game of the second set to hand another immediate break to Sabalenka.

When it was Sabalenka’s turn to serve, the final only appeared more one-sided. 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.

«I’m speechless right now,» Sabalenka said after securing the match at the fourth time of asking. «I don’t know how to describe my emotions. I’m super, super happy and proud of everything I was able to achieve. I just have to keep fighting for my dream and believe my father is watching me and very proud of me.»

From the moment Sabalenka began her Australian Open title defense, there had been an impending sense of inevitability that she was once again destined to be the last woman standing at Melbourne Park.

While it’s not uncommon for one of the world’s top players to dominate their first-round opponent at a Slam, Sabalenka’s 53-minute 6-0, 6-1 demolition of German qualifier Ella Seidel felt like a statement performance. In no way was she suffering the effects of an Australian Open hangover, rather she was picking up right where she left off 12 months ago.

The trend of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it matches continued through to the semifinals. Sabalenka never conceded more than three games in any set as she breezed into the last four. And while American fourth-seed Coco Gauff tested her in the semifinals, she rose to the challenge in such a way that left just about every tennis pundit convinced she would repeat her 2023 triumph two days later.

There weren’t many of those pressure moments in Saturday’s final, but that speaks to how Sabalenka was able to put the result beyond doubt before the sun had begun setting over Rod Laver Arena.

The scariest part for Sabalenka’s rivals might well be that the 25-year-old is still very much an unfinished project. Few, if any, can match her sheer power and aggression, but knowing how to control it and ensure it’s being used to her advantage, rather than to her detriment, is something she’s only beginning to learn. Her understanding of when to attack and when to play a more conservative brand of tennis, in a way that doesn’t detract from her obvious strengths, was on display in Saturday’s final.

In the first set, Sabalenka quickly fell into a 0-40 hole after she had broken for an early 2-0 lead. But there were no signs of panic or concern. No sign of trying to force something that wasn’t there. Instead, she calmly served her way out of trouble, reeling off five consecutive points to avoid the break.

«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.»

It’s taken time for Sabalenka to learn she doesn’t always have to take unnecessary risks by attempting to paint the lines with every groundstroke. She’ll now, at times, opt for the more calculated approach, forcing her opponents into mistakes — and it’s proving even more successful.

Most would agree her run to the title this fortnight has been even more impressive than how she achieved the feat 12 months ago, yet in this campaign she struck exactly half the amount of winners as she did in 2023. Instead, the damage was being done by forcing her opponents into mistakes. It was no different in the final with Zheng committing 32 forced errors across the two sets, almost one in every three points.

There’s no denying Sabalenka has been the most consistent player on the women’s tour since her breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2021. Since then, no player has won more matches than her on the Slam stage. She has made the final four in seven of the last nine majors, played in three finals and now won two of them.

Iga Swiatek will continue to carry the world No. 1 tag, but Sabalenka has closed the gap considerably over the past 15 months. And with the trajectory she appears to be on, it seems only a matter of time before she usurps her.

«It’s been on my mind that I didn’t want to be that player who wins [a Grand Slam] and then disappeared,» Sabalenka said after the final. «I just wanted to show that I’m able to be consistently there and I’m able to win another one.

«Now, having two Grand Slam titles, it’s definitely given me more confidence and believe in myself. I’m where I’m meant to be, so that’s really important.»

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