Aryna Sabalenka romps to second Australian Open in a row | Tennis News - Hindustan Times
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Aryna Sabalenka romps to second Australian Open in a row

By, Mumbai
Jan 27, 2024 09:32 PM IST

The Belarusian world No.2 retained the women's singles title without dropping a set, beating China's Zheng Qinwen 6-3 6-2 in the final

In any sport, maintaining a lead is often as hard as gaining it in the first place. It can get harder to do that in an individual sport where you’re left to banish the doubts and find a way by yourself. In the Australian Open women’s singles final on Saturday, Aryna Sabalenka showed that in world tennis, she’s probably the strongest front runner at the moment.

This handout picture released by Tennis Australia on January 27, 2023, shows Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka poses with the 2024 Australian Open women's singles final trophy at the locker room in Melbourne(AFP)
This handout picture released by Tennis Australia on January 27, 2023, shows Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka poses with the 2024 Australian Open women's singles final trophy at the locker room in Melbourne(AFP)

The 25-year-old headed into the title showdown against Chinese 12th seed Zheng Qinwen on the back of a stunning streak. Across her previous 13 matches at Melbourne Park, which included her triumphant run last year, she had dropped just one set (in the 2023 final). That’s 26 out of 27 sets won. And once again, she was at her dominant best in a 6-3, 6-2 victory against Zheng to bag her second Grand Slam title. She was the overwhelming favourite, but never let the pressure get to her.

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It was an emphatic statement by the world No. 2 from Belarus, who became the fifth woman since 2000 to win the Australian Open without dropping a set and the ninth woman in the Open Era to win the singles title in consecutive years. Her serve didn’t get broken even once in the final, a feat last achieved by Serena Williams against Maria Sharapova in 2007.

Sabalenka broke to take a 2-0 lead in the opener and never looked back. Zheng, who was aiming to become the first Major champion from China since Li Na in 2014, struggled with her serve for the most part. Perhaps it was nerves but her ball toss, unusual as it is, kept going a bit too forward and she landed just 53 % of her first serves in. Sabalenka getting to feast on second serves went a long way in making the contest one-sided.

Although rallies were few and far between, 21-year-old Zheng held her own and ended up hitting 19 winners compared to her opponent’s 14. She’s set to enter the top 10 of the WTA rankings for the first time and one can expect to see a lot more of her in the years to come. But on the day, Sabalenka simply had much more firepower, be it while serving or returning. The Belarusian saved each of the four break points she faced, including one while serving for the match, to close out a memorable win in 76 minutes.

Apart from her semi-final against Coco Gauff, Sabalenka didn’t drop more than three games in a set in any match. The average number of games she lost per match through the tournament was, astonishingly, less than five.

The incredible numbers Sabalenka racked up over the fortnight make sense when one looks at her run over the past couple of years. Since missing the 2022 Wimbledon, she has made it to at least the semi-finals of the last six Majors. She was always a powerful ball-striker but for a long time her game seemed one-dimensional. During the clay swing last year, she showed her will to keep improving and beat world No.1 Iga Swiatek in the Madrid final before reaching the Roland Garros semis.

Then came the heartbreak of the US Open final, which saw her lose to Gauff despite winning the first set. “I'll work harder so next time I'm not going to get even a little bit tired on court,” a tearful Sabalenka had vowed back then. The result of her determination was there for all to see at this Australian Open.

“Actually, it's been in my mind that I didn't want to be that player who won it and then disappeared,” said Sabalenka after her victory. "I just wanted to show that I'm able to be consistently there and I'm able to win another one. I really hope more, more than two, but for me it was really important. That's why, no matter what the result, win or lose, we are always working hard, we were always looking for things to improve in my game. It's all about the process and make sure that, about the discipline, make sure that you're always there, you always show up, and you always work hard.”

Sabalenka reached the top of the rankings last September and she’s closing in on Swiatek once again. Going by her composure in the biggest tournaments and success across surfaces over the past year, it seems her best is yet to come.

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