Coco Gauff falls to Sabalenka in Australian Open semis

Coco Gauff Sabalenka Australian Open
Coco Gauff, left, of the U.S. congratulates Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus following their semifinal match at the Australian Open tennis championships at Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Aryna Sabalenka avenged a U.S. Open final loss to Coco Gauff and will defend her Australian Open title as the overwhelming favorite against first-time finalist Zheng Qinwen.

Sabalenka attacked Gauff’s serve with her powerful returns and unloaded 33 winners in the 7-6 (2), 6-4 semifinal victory on Thursday night.

After her breakthrough sequence in 2023 that started with a first major title in Australia and ended in U.S. final loss to Gauff, Sabalenka is the first to reach consecutive finals at Melbourne Park since Serena Williams in 2015, ’16 and ’17.

“The key was that I was able to stay focused no matter what, no matter what the score was … keep fighting for it,” Sabalenka said of the difference between her last two Grand Slam encounters against Gauff. “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.”

No. 12-seeded Zheng had a 6-4, 6-4 win over No. 93-ranked Dayana Yastremska, ending the Ukrainian player’s bid to become just the second qualifier to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era after 2021 U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu.

Zheng lost in the U.S. Open quarterfinals to Sabalenka last year in her best previous run at a major.

She said reaching the final a decade after Chinese compatriot Li Na won the Australian title almost completes a dream. One more win will finish it.

“It feels unbelievable. I’m super excited to have such a great performance today and arrive in the final,” said Zheng, who hasn’t faced a player ranked in the top 50 in six rounds. “I haven’t faced big seeded (players) all the past rounds … but, you know, it’s a match, so let’s see what’s going to happen in the final.”

Taking on No. 2-seeded Sabalenka will certainly be a big step up for the 21-year-old Zheng, who is playing in a major for only the ninth time.

Sabalenka said she’d been “ready for anything” against Gauff, and was happy to have some support after facing the 19-year-old American in New York last September.

Gauff went into the semifinals unbeaten in 2024 after winning the title in Auckland, New Zealand.

She was on a 12-match winning streak in majors and attempting to be the first player since Naomi Osaka in 2020-21 to win the U.S. Open and Australian Open back to back.

The first set contained six service breaks. Sabalenka led 5-2 and missed a set point as Gauff went on a four-game roll to take a 6-5 lead. Gauff also couldn’t serve out, with Sabalenka’s booming returns causing her trouble.

In the tiebreaker, Sabalenka raced to 5-1. Chants of “Coco, Coco” went up around Rod Laver Arena but they didn’t help Gauff.

Almost a half-hour after her first set point, Sabalenka got five more. She clinched it with a big serve out wide.

Gauff won points on just three of her 17 second serves in the first set. That made her push harder and led to six double-faults.

The second set was tight again, until Sabalenka broke in the ninth game.

After missing her first match point when Gauff saved with a forehand winner to end a 12-shot rally, Sabalenka earned a second match point with an ace and clinched it after 1 hour, 42 minutes.

That she won’t win a second major before turning 20 in March wasn’t a huge concern for Gauff.

“I tend to be hard on myself, so today was like, ‘Dang!’ But looking back overall at this stage of my life, it was a successful time.”

Gauff said she saw statistics that ranked her close to Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati in their teens.

“They had great careers. So I’m in the right direction,” she said. “I just have to remind myself of the journey and not so much of the moment.

“I did want to win a Slam as a teenager, and I did that. I was hoping to get No. 2, or at least give myself a chance to get No. 2. I feel it can only go upwards from here.”

Yastremska, who won three matches in qualifying and five matches in the main draw, said she was proud of her performance and giving herself the chance to fly the flag for Ukraine.

“It was a great tournament for me. Usually (you) get in Grand Slams seven matches to play, and I have played nine matches, so I’m very proud of myself,” she said.

Yastremska needed a medical timeout after the seventh game after hurting her hip, and the fatigue finally set in.

“Not really sad about the loss, but very sad that I didn’t have enough emotions and enough recovery,” she said. “There was some important moments where I had to give a little bit more than she did. I felt like I just couldn’t take it.”

In doubles, 43-year-old Rohan Bopanna and Matthew Ebden advanced to their second consecutive Grand Slam men’s final by beating Zhang Zhizhen and Tomas Machac 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7).

Tournament officials said Bopanna and Ebden, at a combined age of 79, will become the oldest No. 1 pairing in tennis history after the tournament.

For more on Coco Gauff and the Australian Open, visit AMNY.com