AO 2024 – Day 12: Sabalenka gains revenge for final return

The defending champion will meet China's Zheng Qinwen to fight for the trophy lift at Melbourne Park.

Aryna Sabalenka / Demi-finales Open d'Australie 2024©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Alex Sharp

The women's singles draw of the Australian Open 2024 has been brimming with youthful exuberance, combined with fearless competing.

So much so, that all four of Thursday's semi-finalists were under the age of 26 for the first time at a Grand Slam since Wimbledon 2011. On this evidence tennis is in same hands…

Sabalenka strikes back

Reigning champion Aryna Sabalenka stated she wanted "revenge" for her US Open final defeat at the hands of Coco Gauff. Mission accomplished.

The world No.2 held her nerve in a captivating 7-6(2), 6-4 contest to chalk up her third Grand Slam final appearance, which is three in a row at hard court majors.

"I think I was able to focus on myself," said Sabalenka, without dropping a set all fortnight. "I was preparing that Coco is going to move really good and she's going to put all balls back to me and I just have to be ready to play an extra shot. I was just ready for anything tonight. 

"Of course, I'm super happy to be in another final of a Grand Slam. Hopefully I can do a little bit better than the last time."

Under the watch of legends courtside such as Billie Jean King and Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Sabalenka dressed in red from head to toe, continued her red-hot form to launch 5-2 up on the American teenager.

No.4 seed Gauff has hailed her mental transformation in the past year or so, being able to erase disappointment sharply. The 19-year-old fended off set point at 4-5 with a scorching serve and was clawing back into the contest by absorbing Sabalenka's power play with her capabilities on the run.

The US Open champion found herself in front, when Sabalenka over twisted on a mid-court putaway forehand to relinquish a fourth successive game to Gauff.

Sabalenka, competing in her sixth consecutive Grand Slam semi-final, now excels at recalibrating, harnessing her firepower when dealing with simmering frustrations. 

"Honestly in my head I just let that set go. No matter what the score was, I was just trying to do my best and fighting for it," revealed the 25-year-old.

"Even when the score was 6-5, 30-Love to her serve, I was just like, 'okay, I'm going to do my best, try to stay in this set and try to fight for this set.'"

It worked a treat.

With more margin on her shots, not overhitting, Sabalenka accelerated through a near-perfect tie-break to steal the advantage.

Back in September on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Gauff rallied from a set down and saved two break points at the very beginning of the second set. Same again.

This time Sabalenka's controlled aggression eventually caused too much damage and at 4-4 she blazed to the telling break, before a hug at the net to show their mutual respect for this burgeoning rivalry.

"Last match we played, I lost that one, but it's just extra motivation for me," added Sabalenka, referring to the US Open final.

"It's always a great fight. She's an incredible player. I really enjoy playing her. Win or lose, it's always great matches.

"I really hope that in the future we're going to play many more finals and I mean hopefully I'm going to win all of them!"

Gauff seeing the bigger picture

Over to Gauff for her say following another stellar major showing, her last Grand Slam as a teenager.

"Tough match for me tonight. I had chances in both sets, but she played better. I felt like I did my best with the game plan that I had. I think it just came down to a couple of points, and that's tennis. Overall a positive tournament," assessed the 19-year-old.

"I tend to be hard on myself, so I feel like today I was, like, 'dang,' but I think looking back overall at this stage of my life, it was obviously a successful time.

"I just have to remind myself of the journey and not so much of the moment. I am really proud of myself. I did want to win a slam as a teenager, and I did that…So hopefully I can go only upwards from here."

Zheng moves one step closer

Later on Rod Laver Arena, No.12 seed Zheng Qinwen launched into her maiden Grand Slam final with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over qualifier Dayana Yastremska.

The 21-year-old became the first Chinese major singles finalist since her idol Li Na triumphed on the very same court a decade ago in 2014.

"For sure, the feeling was incredible to arrive at my real first Grand Slam final. That's my dream since I was a kid," said a beaming Zheng.

"My dream is not just the final… Right now, I'm really happy, but I know there is still another fight to go. I'm trying to control my emotions right now."

World No.93 Yastremska, aiming to become the second qualifier in the Open Era to reach a Grand Slam final by emulating Emma Raducanu at US Open 2021, raced to a fast and furious start with 2-0 on the scoreboard.

Remarkable defence on top some brilliance to turn defence into attack in a flash, saw the world No.15 claim a 4-3 lead.

Over the over side of the net Yastremska, in her ninth match in Melbourne, was struggling with an abdominal complaint, but valiantly fought on.

Zheng's exceptional court coverage kept the Ukrainian qualifier at bay to find the necessary points to lead with set.

Each time the No.12 seed claimed another break lead, Yastremska would keep to her full-throttle game plan. Zheng so powerful, yet so graceful, zoomed through 11 straight points to flip the script from 2-3 to 5-3 in a matter of minutes.

That was the heart of the match, as China's latest star rose to the occasion.

"Of course, is special, is my first time. Li Na won here as well. So that's can't be more special than here in Australian Open," continued Zheng.

"We have lot of Chinese crowd support me in the stadium. Feels like I play in China. That's amazing."

The world No.15, crowned WTA 'Most Improved Player' in 2023, would relish the chance to triumph 10 years on from her idol Na, but also insists her rise has been earned.

"I believe on the destiny. Yes, I do. I try to don't let other things affect me even if destiny," added the world No.15.

"When everything is working well, I believe in the destiny... I think everything is just add, add, continue to add a bit. There is no sudden explosion.

"Of course we've been working hard, I mean that's the basic of all the athletes. We've been putting in a lot of effort on the tennis court also outside in the fitness, in the treatment, basic stuff. I think little details helps every day."