Sabalenka rolls to 2nd straight Aussie Open title

MELBOURNE, Australia — World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka produced a near-flawless performance to win her second straight Australian Open crown, defeating China’s Zheng Qinwen 6-3, 6-2 in the women’s final Saturday.

Dominant from the outset, the defending champion blasted her way through Zheng’s service games on three occasions, sealing the win in 1 hour, 16 minutes to become the first woman to go back-to-back in Melbourne since Belarusian compatriot Victoria Azarenka in 2012 and 2013.

Sabalenka’s second Grand Slam title caps a dominant fortnight, after she won a perfect 14 of 14 sets and dropped just 31 games throughout the run.

Zheng, the 12th seed in Australia, was playing in her first Grand Slam final and seemed to feel the pressure from her first service game. Sabalenka broke for a 2-0 advantage and, despite looking like giving the break right back, rallied to save three break point opportunities and hold for a rapid 3-0 lead.

For the rest of the first set, Sabalenka was unrelenting on her service games, winning all but one point on her first serves and not giving Zheng a further break point look.

The second set started much the same; Sabalenka broke in the first game courtesy of three Zheng double faults. That gave Sabalenka the edge in the second set that was she quickly capitalized on to put the contest all but out of reach.

A protest briefly delayed the match as Zheng started to find rhythm on serve, but as in the first set, it was too late.

Sabalenka broke again in the fifth game, and not long after, served the match — her five games conceded the fewest in an Australian Open final since Azarenka gave up three in 2012.

Sabalenka said she was thrilled with her level of play both in the final and throughout the fortnight in Melbourne and relieved that she was able to show that her one Grand Slam title was not a fluke.

“[Zheng is] a great player and very tough opponent. I’m super happy that I was able to get this win today,” she said in her postmatch news conference. “I wanted to show that I’m able to be consistently there and I’m able to win another [Grand Slam]. I really hope that [I can win] more than two right now, but for me was really important.

“It’s been in my mind that I didn’t want to be that player who wins [one] and then disappears.”

She said the experience of playing in more big matches — including last year’s US Open final loss to Coco Gauff — had left her “emotionally ready” for a fast start that she never surrendered.

“Compared to last year, it’s completely different me,” Sabalenka said. “I’m more controlled and … don’t let the rest of the things come to my mind, and I was focusing on myself.”

She has enhanced her reputation as one of the world’s premier hard-court players; of the 14 titles she has won, 12 have come on hard courts, including her two Grand Slams in Melbourne.

Despite her success on the hard surfaces, Sabalenka said she is continuing to work on becoming an all-court player and one who can routinely challenge for majors at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

“I think last year I proved I can play on each surface,” she said. “I definitely think that if I’m going to keep working like I’m working right now, and if we’re going to keep building what we are building right now, I’m definitely able to do the same on the clay and on the grass.”

Meanwhile, Zheng said her “slow” start left her playing from behind from the outset, explaining that going down a break to Sabalenka made getting back into the match very difficult.

“I think the difference is the beginning. I [couldn’t] hold the service game,” Zheng said. “Then later on, when I got the chance to break her 40-love up and I’m not able to make it. That little moment makes the match so different. If you don’t take this chance, the match [gets] away really fast. She’s a really aggressive player. If you let a chance go, it will happen like today.”

Zheng said she wasn’t overly nervous going into her first Grand Slam final but admitted she needs to work on a few things, including her mental toughness in big moments.

“I have to work more on my tennis, also work more on my mental side, work more on myself to be able to through this moment,” she said. “Because if you lose, there must be reason behind why you lose, and we have to try to figure out why and then come back stronger and better next time.”

With the victory, Sabalenka retains her slot at No. 2 in the world, hot on the heels of world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, while Zheng rises to a career-high No. 7.

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