By JOHN PYE AP Sports Writer
MELBOURNE, Australia — Winning her first Grand Slam title in Australia a year ago gave Aryna Sabalenka the confidence she could do it again. Losing the U.S. Open final last September gave her the extra motivation.
Second-ranked Sabalenka clinched back-to-back Australian Open titles with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Zheng Qinwen on Saturday in a one-sided women’s final that contrasted sharply with her comeback three-set victory here over Elena Rybakina last year.
Sabalenka set the tone by breaking Zheng’s serve early in each set in a 76-minute victory over 21-year-old Zheng, who was making her debut in a Grand Slam final.
The journey and the destination were equally important for Sabalenka.
In the semifinals, she avenged her U.S. Open final loss to fourth-ranked Coco Gauff with a straight-set win over the reigning major champion.
That followed straight-sets wins over 2021 French Open winner Barbora Krejcikova in the quarterfinals and Amanda Anisimova in the fourth round. She didn’t drop a set all tournament, and only one – a tiebreaker against Gauff – went past 10 games.
“I’m definitely a different person and a player and I have more experience playing the last stages of the Grand Slams,” Sabalenka said, reflecting on the last 13 months. “There was like some tough moments for me losing the U.S. Open final – that loss actually motivated me so much to work even harder.”
And that, she said, gave her more confidence in her game and more self-belief.
“The first one is always special because I feel like it’s more emotional,” she said. “For the second time, it’s just such a relief.
“I’ve been under a little pressure these two weeks and I’m super happy that I was able to handle this pressure and compete on such a high level.”
Only two things slowed Sabalenka’s progress Saturday (late Friday night PT) to her second Grand Slam singles title.
In the third game of the second set, with Zheng serving, the match was interrupted after an activist started yelling out. The match continued after the man was escorted out by security.
Then, when she was serving for the match, Sabalenka had three championship points at 40-0 but missed two with wide or long forehands and another with Zheng’s clever drop shot.
After giving Zheng a breakpoint chance, she bounced the ball away behind her in disgust but she recovered her composure to win the next three points.
In the end, she needed five championship points before finishing off with a forehand crosscourt winner. It was the kind of shot that had kept Zheng on the back foot almost from the start.
Sabalenka is the first woman since Victoria Azarenka in 2012 and ’13 to win back-to-back Australian Open titles, and the fifth since 2000 to win the championship here without dropping a set – a group that includes Serena Williams.
A decade after Li Na won the Australian Open title, Zheng made her best run in nine majors to date. She said during the tournament that she felt well-supported in Melbourne because of the big Chinese community. And that played out for the final, where the flags waved and she had the crowd behind her.
But she was playing an opponent ranked in the top 50 for the first time in this tournament.
It was the second time in as many majors their paths had met in the second week. Sabalenka beat Zheng in the U.S. Open quarterfinals last year on her way to the final.
Zheng’s push to the final was two rounds better than her previous best run to the quarterfinals in New York last September.
She was the first player in four decades to advance through six rounds without playing anyone ranked in the top 50 – and was only the third in the Open era to reach a major final without facing a seeded player.
The step up against Sabalenka proved huge.