Aryna Sabalenka won the Australian Open with a decisive, straight sets win over Zheng Qinwen, a fitting end a fortnight that established her as the class of her sport at the moment, even if that’s not what the rankings say.
For the seventh time in as many matches, Sabalenka, a 25-year-old power hitter from Belarus, overwhelmed her opponent for much of the match, blitzing Zheng with her booming serve, her punishing forehands, and pounding backhands that, when she isn’t sending them off the court or into the net, are nearly impossible for her competition to handle.
Sabalenka finished off the first set with a crushing serve out wide, and clinched her 6-3, 6-2 win on her fifth match point with a ripping crosscourt forehand after just 76 minutes.
It was Sabalenka’s second consecutive title at the Australian Open, the first time a woman has won back-to-back Grand Slam titles on a hard court since 2014. In a sport where consistency at the top has been rare, Sabalenka has been a beacon of steadiness in the most important tournaments.
Beginning with the U.S. Open in 2022, she has made at least the semifinals of every Grand Slam. Since the start of last year, she has played in three Grand Slam finals, won two of them, and was a point away from making a fourth.
Her consistency is especially remarkable because not long ago Sabalaenka seemed as lost as a top tennis player could be. For months during the early parts of 2022, she had the most painful case of the yips, a the nickname given to psychological blocks that prevent athletes from performing the most basic actions.
In Sabalenka’s case, she lost the ability to serve, pumping 21 double faults in one match, 18 in another. During a win at the 2022 Australian Open she celebrated “only” hitting 10. No one then could have predicted the run that would begin in less than a year, or how it might come to fruition.
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Sabalenka, a player everyone knew had the talent and athleticism to become the best player in the world, basically told her coaches she didn’t want to talk about her serve anymore. She fired her sports psychologist, deciding it was going to be up to her and only her to figure it out. And she certainly did.
After the U.S. Open last year, she was the No 1 player in the world. Iga Swiatek of Poland seized it back at the end of the season. But Swiatek struggled through her first three matches in the year’s first Grand Slam, albeit against a tough collection of opponents, and failed to make the second week, while Sabalenka cruised, regardless of who stood on the other side of the net.
In the semifinals she avenged her loss in the U.S. Open final to Coco Gauff. Up next was Zheng, the rising 21-year-old from China who, during the last six months, has begun to fulfill the promise that so many have predicted for her in recent years, a player who could succeed Li Na as China’s next tennis champion. The were large pockets of Chinese fans screaming for her waving China’s flag from the first ball, doing their best to raise Zheng higher.
That may yet happen, but in addition to facing a peak version of Sabalenka, Zheng struggled to handle the nerves of her first Grand Slam final at the end of a tournament where Sabalenka was the only player the 12th-seeded Zheng faced in the top 50.
Sabalenka figured to be a whole different level of foe, and she was.
(DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images)