Sabalenka’s ominously relaxed approach to Open final

Darren Walton |

A relaxed approach has helped Aryna Sabalenka make the Australian Open final without losing a set.
A relaxed approach has helped Aryna Sabalenka make the Australian Open final without losing a set.

Unlike past years, when she might have been an emotional wreck, Aryna Sabalenka says she’s entering the Australian Open final feeling stress-free and ready to play with freedom and no fear.

And with “extra motivation” after letting slip last year’s US Open title from a set up in the championship showdown against American teenager Coco Gauff.

But having avenged that Flushing Meadows defeat with a straight-sets statement win over Gauff in the Melbourne Park semi-finals, Sabalenka believes she couldn’t be more prepared or in a better head space to take on Chinese underdog Zheng Qinwen on Saturday night.

“I would say emotionally I’ll be very ready to fight. Not going crazy, because when you play (your) first final, you get emotional and are rushing things sometimes,” said the world No.2.

“When you’re third time in the finals, you’re, like, ‘OK, it’s a final, it’s OK’. It’s just another match and you’re able to separate yourself from that, just focus on your game.”

Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka has been showing her lighter side in her Australian Open title defence. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

Sabalenka concedes that being the hot favourite and striving to become the first woman to defend their crown in Melbourne since fellow Belarusian Victoria Azarenka in 2013 “is tough”.

“Yeah, I’m defending champion, but worst case I’m going to lose this tournament, and it’s less points to defend next year. Then that’s it,” she said.

“That’s helping me to just stay focused. It’s not like I’m ignoring the pressure. I’m just shifting my focus and it’s working well so far.

“It’s one more to go, and I’ll do my best.”

Sabalenka’s relaxed approach, and rampant run through the draw to the final for a second straight year without dropping a set, could spell trouble for Zheng.

The 12th seed hasn’t faced a rival inside the top 50 during her dream run to a maiden grand slam final, and she was thumped 6-1 6-4 by Sabalenka in their only previous meeting, four months ago in the quarter-finals in New York.

Qinwen Zheng
Qinwen Zheng will rise to a career high of at least No.7 in the world after making the Open final. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

Still, Sabalenka is suitably respectful and wary of the 21-year-old, who will rise to a career-high world No.7 – or higher – following her Melbourne Park charge.

“Zheng, we’ve played once but we’ve practised a lot,” the second seed said.

“We actually practised here before the tournament, and she’s playing really great tennis.

“Her forehand is really heavy, her best shot, putting her opponents under pressure, playing really aggressive tennis, and that’s why she will be top 10.

“She’s moving well also, fighting for every point.

“It’s going to be great battle.”

Zheng is unfazed about not claiming any seeded scalps en route to the title match, and hopes the stars will align a decade after her idol Li Na became China’s first major singles winner at Melbourne Park.

“I believe in the destiny,” Zheng said.

“The feeling was incredible to arrive at my first grand slam final. That’s my dream since I was a kid.

“So right now for sure I’m really happy, but I know there is still another fight to go.”

2-ARYNA SABALENKA leads 12-Zheng Qinwen (CHN) 1-0

2023 US Open, hard, QF, Sabalenka 6-1 6-4

ARYNA SABALENKA

Age: 25

Born: Minsk, Belarus

Height: 182cm

Ranking: 2

Plays: right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Career prize money: $US20,512,563

Career titles: 13

Career win-loss record: 370-175 

Grand slam titles: 1 (Australian Open 2023)

Grand slam win-loss record: 65-22

Australian Open win-loss record: 21-5

Best Australian Open results: champion 2023, finalist 2024

Coach: Anton Dubrov

Road to final:

1st rd: bt Ella Seidel (GER) 6-0 6-1

2nd rd: bt Brenda Fruhvirtova (CZE) 6-3 6-2

3rd rd: bt 32-Lesia Tsurenko (UKR) 6-0 6-0

4th rd: bt Amanda Anisimova (USA) 6-3 6-2

QF: bt 9-Barbora Krejcikova (CZE) 6-2 6-3

SF: bt 4-Coco Gauff (USA) 7-6 (7-2) 6-4

ZHENG QINWEN

Age: 21

Born: Shiyan, Hubei Province 

Height: 178cm

Ranking: 15

Plays: right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Career prize money: $US2,935,768

Career titles: 2

Career win-loss record: 183-77

Grand slam titles: 0

Grand slam win-loss record: 20-8 

Australian Open win-loss record: 8-2

Best Australian Open result: finalist 2024

Coach: Pere Riba

Road to final:

1st rd: bt Ashlyn Krueger (USA) 3-6 6-2 6-3

2nd rd: bt Katie Boulter (GBR) 6-3 6-3

3rd rd: bt Yafan Wang (CHN) 6-4 2-6 7-6 (10-8)

4th rd: bt Oceane Dodin (FRA) 6-0 6-3

QF: bt Anna Kalinskaya (RUS) 6-7 (4-7) 6-3 6-1

SF: bt Dayana Yastremska (BLR) 6-4 6-4 

AAP