AO 2024: Zheng and Sabalenka ready to "fight"

Can Aryna Sabalenka defend her crown, or will Zheng Qinwen channel her childhood idol Li Na?

Qinwen Zheng Australian Open 2024©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Alex Sharp

After all the early seeded exits, after all the talk of breakouts and favourites, only two players remain in the hunt for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.

Reigning Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka knows what it feels like to lift that very same trophy on Rod Laver Arena.

On Saturday, the ultra-consistent world No.2 will take on Chinese virtuoso Zheng Qinwen. It's the first time feeling for the 21-year in a maiden major final. 

The task for Zheng is pretty monumental.

Sabalenka has simply ripped through the draw this fortnight without losing a single set. The 25-year-old has toppled a young gun in Brenda Fruhvirtova, has overcome a nemesis in Amanda Anisimova, has dominated major winners in the shape of Barbora Krejcikova and Coco Gauff.

The No.2 seed hasn't been weighted down by the defending champion tag, becoming the first woman in singles since Serena Williams in 2016-7 to reach back-to-back finals at the Australian Open. That's pretty esteemed company. It's been impeccable, so self-assured.

"I think I'm pretty calm inside like I'm outside," stated Sabalenka. "I'm defending champion, but worst case, I'm like, 'okay, I'm gonna lose this tournament, and it's less points to defend next year.' Then that's it.

"That's helping me to just stay focused and try your best in each match without thinking about defending something."

Six successive major semi-finals have now yielded three Grand Slam finals for Sabalenka, which in comparison with Zheng is a wealth of experience on the main stage.

"I would say emotionally I'll be very ready to fight. Not going crazy," maintained the 2023 champion. "Because when you play first final you kind of get emotional and rushing things sometimes.

"When you're third time in the finals, you're like, 'okay, it's a final, it's okay. It's just another match,' and you're able to separate yourself from that thing. Just focus on your game."

That's an extra obstacle for the No.12, how she'll adapt to the unknown on Saturday night.

"I think challenge is everywhere. Even is not her (Sabalenka). There is still going to be challenge on my side, because everybody needs to face the pressure in the final," mused Zheng.

"Who can deal better and who can perform their tennis, that's the one who's gonna win the match.

"I need to deal with it. I will try to work on. There is nothing more I can say, I will say enjoy the final and let's fight."

Their only previous encounter came at the US Open last September, Zheng competing in her first Grand Slam quarter-final, where Sabalenka roared to a 6-1, 6-4 scoreline.

Aryna Sabalenka Australian Open 2024©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

"We've practiced a lot. We actually practiced here before the tournament, and she's playing really great tennis once again. She's really nice girl. It's going to be great battle," said Sabalenka.

"Well, I think her forehand is really heavy, her best shot, and she's moving well also. Fighting for every point.

"She's played really great tennis, putting her opponents under pressure, playing really aggressive, and I think that's why she's Top 10."

In response, the world No.15 describes her final opponent as "the complete player," knowing there will be a step up, having not faced a Top 50 battle this fortnight.

As Sabalenka states, Zheng will crack the Top 10 for the first time next week as a reward for her Melbourne magic.

The WTA's 'Most Improved Player 2023' is "much more at peace" following two coaching switches last season. Despite the upheaval, Zheng posted a standout campaign with her opening two WTA titles in Palermo and Zhangzhou, as well as that first major quarter-final in New York.

Zheng is now reunited with coach Pere Riba. They split just after Roland-Garros 2023, but they've resettled as a highly successful partnership.

Building on 2023 success with this reinforced coaching platform, Zheng is on course to emulate her childhood idol Li Na.

A decade ago, her compatriot ruled Rod Laver Arena, inspiring millions of kids like Zheng to pick up a racket. In a slight signal of destiny, Na has met with Zheng earlier this trip at Melbourne Park.

"She already gave me advice last time. She tell me, 'Don't think too much. Just go for it.' That's enough," added Zheng with a smile.

"I think she's the first one who won the slams. That's unbelievable for Asian woman in that moment.

"Then she gave a lot of hope in that moment for young kids of me. I think she means a lot for everyone."

Set the alarms, this should be a real treat for all tennis fans.