Aryna Sabalenka said the Australian Open will always be her “special place” after blowing China’s Zheng Qinwen off court on Saturday to become the first woman to defend her title in more than a decade.
The Belarusian world number two proved too strong for the 12th seed, administering a 6-3, 6-2 drubbing in 76 minutes to claim her second Grand Slam crown on Rod Laver Arena.
It capped an incredible display of power and poise from Sabalenka over the past fortnight, with the 25-year-old surging to the title without losing a set through her seven matches.
The last time the tournament witnessed a successful women’s title defence was in 2013, when fellow Belarusian Victoria Azarenka achieved the feat.
“Like every player, you want to win them all (Slams), but Australia will definitely always be my special place and it’s going to be in my memory for the rest of my life,” she said.
“I think the first (title) is always special because it is so emotional when you win for the first time, second time it’s just such a relief.
“I’ve been under a little pressure these two weeks and I’m super happy I was able to handle it and compete at such a high level.”
With her latest exploits, Sabalenka cemented her reputation as one of the game’s most consistent contenders at Grand Slams, reaching at least the semi-finals in her past six majors, making three finals and winning twice.
She had words of encouragement for Zheng, who was in her first major final.
“I know this feeling — it is tough to lose in a final but you are such an incredible player, such a young girl. You are going to be in many more finals and you are going to get it,” she said.
In vivid red, she overwhelmed Zheng with her crushing groundstrokes deep into both corners and a consistently reliable serve.
Zheng had reached her first Grand Slam final without meeting a seed after a host of players crashed out early on her side of the draw, and the gulf in class was exposed.
– Amazing memory –
“It’s my first final and I’m feeling a little bit of pity,” said Zheng. “I feel very complicated because I feel like I could’ve done it better.
“But I really enjoyed playing in this Australian Open, it’s an amazing memory for me. I’m sure there is going to be more and better in the future.”
The Belarusian opened with a comfortable serve then got a look at two break points at 15-40 in Zheng’s opening service game when the Chinese star sprayed a backhand wide.
She seized the chance, attacking her opponent’s second serve for the break.
Sabalenka consolidated for 3-0, but only after saving three break points as Zheng’s nerves settled and she worked to get into the contest.
The Chinese player finally got on the board as her serve hit its mark in game four, with two big aces and a forehand winner giving her confidence.
But she had few answers to the booming Sabalenka serve, struggling to get the ball back and get into any rallies.
Zheng saved three set points with a pair of aces and a winner to hold for 3-5, but it was delaying the inevitable as Sabalenka closed out the set on serve in 33 minutes.
Three double faults, including on break point, immediately put Zheng on the back foot in the second set as the pressure took its toll.
And there was no way back as she conceded another break to slump 4-1 behind when Sabalenka executed a perfect drop shot.
Fighting until the end, she saved four championship points before the second seed closed out the match to bank her 14th career title.
“My aggressive game and that I put her under pressure a lot on the serve, that was the key to this match,” said Sabalenka. “And I of course also served well, which is very important.”
Despite the loss, it was a breakthrough tournament for Zheng, who will climb into the top 10 in the new rankings.
Sabalenka will remain at number two behind Iga Swiatek, who crashed out in the third round.
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