Sabalenka rejoices in shedding her one-slam wonder tag

Darren Walton |

Aryna Sabalenka has retained her Australian Open crown with a 6-3 6-2 win over Zheng Qinwen.
Aryna Sabalenka has retained her Australian Open crown with a 6-3 6-2 win over Zheng Qinwen.

Aryna Sabalenka has recalled the dark times of fearing a grand slam title might forever elude her after becoming the first player to defend the Australian Open women’s crown in more than a decade.

Sabalenka placed her rivals on notice that many more may be coming after shedding her tag as a one-major wonder with a ruthless and relieving straight-sets victory over Chinese underdog Zheng Qinwen.

The world No.2 overwhelmed Zheng 6-3 6-2 on Saturday night to follow fellow Belarusian Victoria Azarenka’s Melbourne Park double act in 2012 and 2013.

Underlining her dominance, Sabalenka joined greats Ash Barty (2022), Serena Williams (2017), Maria Sharapova (2008) and Lindsay Davenport (2000) as only the fifth woman this century to hoist the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup without dropping a set.

Sabalenka celebrates
A beaming Sabalenka enjoys a celebratory tipple after winning the Open. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

“It’s been an amazing couple of weeks and I couldn’t imagine myself lifting this trophy one more time,” Sabalenka said.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling right now. I’m really speechless.”

On a mission after losing last year’s US Open final from a set up against Coco Gauff, Sabalenka produced 76 minutes of focus and ferocity to exorcise the mental demons that haunted her during the temperamental talent’s well-documented grapples with the serving yips.

“There was really a moment where I really didn’t believe that I’m going to win a slam one day, especially those periods when I was serving double faults and couldn’t fix my serve,” she said.

“There was a lot of up and downs.

Sabalenka
Sabalenka hails her win after a successful and emphatic title defence. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

“But I just couldn’t quit. I felt like I just have to keep doing what I’m doing. I just have to keep fighting for my dream and make sure that if there is something I want to believe and there is something that my father is watching me and very proud of me.

“So I just couldn’t stop for my family.”

Sabalenka’s former ice hockey-playing father Sergey died in 2019 after introducing his then-six-year-old daughter to tennis almost by accident after driving past some courts one day.

“He’s my biggest motivation. He’s been everything for me,” she said after surging to within one tournament victory of supplanting Poland’s Iga Swiatek from the top ranking.

A one-time emotional wreck, Sabalenka also thanked her team and said she could never have won a grand slam without their unwavering support.

“It’s been in my mind that I didn’t want to be that player who won it and then disappeared,” Sabalenka said of capturing a second major.

“I just wanted to show that I’m able to be consistently there and I’m able to win another one.

“I really hope for more than two right now.”

Zheng Qinwen returns during the AO final.
Zheng Qinwen’s Melbourne Park fairytale came to an end with a final awakening from Sabalenka. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

Believing in destiny, Zheng had been hoping the stars would align and that she would become China’s second grand slam singles champion, a neat decade after her idol and inspiration Li Na won the Australian Open in 2014.

But the second-ranked Sabalenka ended the 21-year-old’s fairytale in clinical fashion.

“I’m feeling a little bit pity but this has been an amazing experience for me,” Zheng said.

“It is my first grand slam final. I feel that I could do it better, but I didn’t in this match.

“I’m sure there’s going to be more and better in the future.”

Zheng’s consolation is a rise from 15th in the rankings to world No.7 and a career pay day of $1.725 million.

CAREER SNAPSHOT OF 2024 AUSTRALIAN OPEN CHAMPION ARYNA SABALENKA

Age: 25

Born: Minsk, Belarus

Height: 182cm

Ranking: 2

Plays: right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Career prize money: $34.35 million 

Career titles: 14

Career win-loss record: 371-175

Grand slam titles: 2 (Australian Open 2023, 2024)

Grand slam win-loss record: 66-22

Australian Open win-loss record: 22-5

Best Australian Open results: champion 2023, 2024

Coach: Anton Dubrov

Road to title:

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

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

3rd rd: bt 28-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

F: bt 12-Zheng Qinwen (CHN) 6-3 6-2

AAP