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Defending champ Sabalenka beats US Open winner Gauff, will meet Zheng in Australian Open final

Associated Press Thursday, 25 January 2024, 15:22 Last update: about 4 months ago

Defending champion Aryna Sabalenka avenged a U.S. Open final loss to Coco Gauff and will meet first-time finalist Zheng Qinwen at the Australian Open on Saturday.

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 that extended her winning streak to 13 matches at Melbourne Park.

No. 12-seeded Zheng defeated Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska 6-4, 6-4 in the second semifinal in Rod Laver Arena.

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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.

“It feels unbelievable. I'm super excited to have such a great performance today and arrive in the final,” Zheng said.

Second-seeded 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 since reach consecutive finals here since Williams did in 2015, '16 and ’17.

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 titles 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.

After the match, Sabalenka acknowledged tennis greats in the crowd including Billie Jean King and Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who was celebrating the 50th anniversary of her first Australian Open title.

“I couldn’t dream (of) playing in front of you,” Sabalenka said. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for our sport. It’s a privilege to play in front of you.”

She signed a towel during her post-match interview that will be auctioned, with proceeds going to children and women affected by domestic violence.

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 years, will become the oldest No. 1 pairing in tennis history after the tournament.

Bopanna and Ebden, ranked second in men’s doubles, lost to Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury in the U.S. Open final last September.

In Saturday’s final, they’ll play Italian pair Simone Bolelli and Andrea Vavassori.

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