Aryna Sabalenka Powers Past Zheng To Clinch Second Australian Open Title - UBITENNIS
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Aryna Sabalenka Powers Past Zheng To Clinch Second Australian Open Title

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Aryna Sabalenka has become the first woman in over a decade to defend their title at the Australian Open after blasting her way past an inexperienced Qinwen Zheng.

The world No.2 showed little sign of nerves throughout her comprehensive 6-3, 6-2, win over 12th seed Zheng, who is only the second Chinese player in history to reach the final in Melbourne after Li Na. Sabalenka’s tactic of hitting heavy and deep towards the baseline drew numerous errors from her rival. Furthermore, she was dominant behind her first serve where she won 32 out of 38 points played and hit 13 winners against 14 unforced errors.

Sabalenka has become the first woman to defend her Australian Open title since compatriot Victoria Azarenka did so back in 2013. She has now won 14 Tour-level titles in her career with 12 of those being on a hardcourt.

“It has been an amazing couple of weeks, it is an unbelievable feeling right now,” Sabalenka said during the trophy presentation. 
“My team, wow, thank you for everything.
“I never speak about my family in my winning speeches. I love you so much, you’re my biggest motivation and I’m doing it for you.”

Playing in her third major final against Zheng who was making her debut at the age of 21, Sabalenka started off guns blazing by claiming the first three games contested in the final. Although she was tested early on after battling back from a 0-40 deficit to hold her second service game. Despite that blip, the second seed continued to dictate play with the use of her powerful hitting against her opponent who was gradually starting to find some rhythm in her game. However, the problem for Zheng was that she struggled to find a way to tame the Sabalenka serve.  

After less than 30 minutes of play, the second seed stormed to a trio of set points at 5-2 but failed to convert any of those due to some impressive play from her opponent. However, she triumphed in the following game where sealed the set out by hitting a blistering serve that Zheng returned out. 

Despite her strong start, Sabalenka was wary that she still had work to do to avoid a repeat of what happened to her in the final of the 2023 US Open where she clinched the opener before losing to Coco Gauff. A thunderous forehand return followed by a costly Zheng double fault enabled her to break right away at the start of the second frame. 

Shortly after this, the match came to a brief pause as a result of a protest. As Zheng was about to serve, outbursts of ‘free Palestine’ erupted from the crowd in what was yet another incident to occur at the event related to the ongoing situation in Gaza. According to witnesses, two people were involved in the latest disruption and they were showing a Palestinian flag during their demonstration. 

On the court, Sabalenka continued to close in on her 66 Grand Slam win and her 22nd at the Australian Open. Serving for victory, she failed to convert her first two championship points due to forehand errors before a splendid Zheng drop shot saved the third. In the end, it was fourth time lucky after she hit a clean forehand cross-court winner.

“I want to say to Zheng, you’re such an incredible player such a young girl, I know it is disappointing to lose a final but you’ll get there,” Sabalenka commented.

Despite her loss, there are still plenty of positives for Zheng to take away with her. Her run to the final has sealed her place in the world’s top 10 for the first time in her career. Before playing Sabalenka, she hadn’t faced a top 50 player in the entire tournament. 

“It’s my first (Grand Slam) final and I’m feeling a little bit pitty but that’s how it is. It’s an experience for me,” said Zheng.
“Right now I feel very complicated because I feel that I could have done better.
“I enjoyed playing this Australian Open Open, it was an amazing memory for me. I’m sure there is going to be more and better (ones) in the future.”

Sabalenka is only the second player in the last 20 years to have won her first two major titles at the Australian Open. She is also the fifth woman since 2000 to have won the Melbourne title without dropping a set in the entire tournament. 

She exits the tournament with £1.68m in prize money and 2000 ranking points. However, she will remain in second place behind Iga Swiatek when the WTA standings are updated on Monday. 

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Karolina Pliskova Finding Her Footing With The Help Of New Coach Krajan

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Karolina Pliskova (CZE) playing against Aryna Sabalenka (BLR) in the semi-final of the Ladies' Singles on Centre Court at The Championships 2021. Held at The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon. Day 10 Thursday 08/07/2021. Credit: AELTC/Simon Bruty

Karolina Pliskova’s resurgence on the Tour comes at a time when she has formed a new partnership with a well-known coach. 

After her first round loss at the Australian Open to Elena Rybakina, the Czech won nine consecutive matches on the Tour. In Romania, she claimed her 17th WTA title at the Winners Open before reaching the semi-finals of a WTA 1000 event in Doha. However, she was unable to play her semi-final clash against Iga Swiatek due to a lower back injury. During this period she has improved her ranking from 77th to 36th. 

Pliskova began the season without a coach at her side but is now working with Croatia’s Zeljko Krajan. A partnership she believes is showing promising signs already. 

“Personality-wise, I think he’s kind of similar to me,” Pliskova told WTA Insider. “Not really high or low. Relaxed and very like calm. 
“We didn’t really plan yet anything because now the schedule was difficult. I might be in qualifying in Indian Wells. Maybe I enter San Diego. So I don’t really know what’s gonna be. I’m just living day by day at the moment.” 

Krajan has worked with a series of players on both the WTA and ATP Tour’s. He guided Dinara Safina to three Grand Slam finals between 2008 and 2010. He has also worked with Borna Coric, Laura Robson, Marcos Baghdatis, Jelena Jankovic and Dominika cibulkova.

Pliskova, who is a former world No.1 and two-time Grand Slam finalist, has endured a roller-coaster journey on the Tour in recent months with mixed results. Last season she failed to win back-to-back matches at 11 consecutive tournaments. 

So how has she managed to regain her form on the Tour?

“Motivation was never really a problem for me,” Pliskova said. “If I go on the court no matter how bad or good I feel, I always want to win. I always want to compete. 
“But my game is based on confidence and I need to feel that. Even if I’m not playing well or winning many matches, I just need to find that confidence in that moment or in that game because it’s just so risky. My shots are so flat, so I go for mostly lines. If something is not going well or you start to doubt, then of course you miss a little bit. Everything is about this.”

Unseeded at this week’s Dubai Tennis Championships, Pliskova beat China’s Zhang Shuai in the first round. She will next play Ashlyn Krueger in the second round on Tuesday.

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Elena Rybakina Eases Past Kasatkina To Win Abu Dhabi Open

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Elena Rybakina has captured her second title of the season after beating an erratic Daria Kasatkina in straight sets at the Abu Dhabi Open. 

The world No.5 stormed to a 6-1, 6-4, win over the Russian in just over an hour. It is the third time in Rybakina’s career that she has beaten Kasatkina on the Tour and she now leads their head-to-head 3-2. The triumph comes a month after she won the Brisbane International, which is also a WTA 500 event. 

Rybakina’s latest match saw her capitalise on her opponent’s costly mistakes. Kasatkina struggled with her serve throughout the majority of the final and only managed to hold twice in eight attempts. Opening the door for the former Wimbledon champion who hit 17 winners against 12 unforced errors en route to victory. 

“I want to thank the fans who came this week,” said the new champion. “It has been an amazing atmosphere, especially to see flags from Kazakhstan. It means a lot, thank you so much.”

A one-sided 25-minute opening set saw Rybakina claim four straight games to clinch an early lead. During to the opener, Kasatkina only managed to win 26% of her service points. It was the fourth time in the tournament that the Kazakh had won a set by conceding two or fewer games. 

Fortunately for world No.14 Kasatkina and the crowd, there was more of a battle in the second frame. Twice in a row Rybakina worked her way to a break advantage before losing it in the following game. Then at 4-4, she dealt the decisive blow by hitting a clean forehand winner to break yet against and this time had a chance to serve for the title. With the rain starting to fall, she converted her first championship point with the help of another error from across the net. 

The defeat for Kasatkina comes a day after she came through a marathon three-hour semi-final match before criticising the WTA over their tournament scheduling. She is currently set to play in the Qatar Open with her opening match taking place tomorrow. It is the sixth time in a row she has been beaten by a top-five player on the Tour. 

“Congratulations to Elena, you’ve had a great week,” she said.
“Thanks to my team who has always been next to me. I am really proud of the job we’ve done and how we are doing. Thanks for always believing in me.”

Rybakina also referred to the demanding calendar during the trophy presentation. 

“Tough week (for Kasatkina), especially the last matches. Tomorrow there is already a match in Doha but hopefully, we will both recover and do well there. Maybe also play (against each other) in the final there,” she said. 

Unlike Kasatkina, Rybakina has a first round bye in Doha. She has now won seven WTA trophies so far in her career. 

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Ons Jabeur Hoping For Better Fortunes In Doha Despite Injury Concerns

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Ons Jabeur (TUN) playing against Venus Williams (USA) on No.1 Court at The Championships 2021. Credit: AELTC/Jon Super

Ons Jabeur is optimistic that she will be ready in time to play at her next event in Doha after suffering an emotional exit from Dubai on Friday. 

The two-time Wimbledon finalist was in tears during her straight sets loss to Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia in the quarter-finals. Jabeur later revealed that her emotional reaction was linked to the reoccurrence of a knee injury in recent days which has troubled her in the past. She said the pain can differ at various tournaments but in Dubai, it was causing her significant discomfort. 

“I’m an open book, an emotional person. I like to show myself. One thing I have learned is to accept the emotion, and if I try to hide it, it will not make me feel good,” Jabeur told reporters in Doha at a pre-tournament press conference. 
“So it’s good to let it out and be done with it than to keep it inside and probably will make more problems for you later.”

Despite the setback, the world No.6 intends to play at the Doha Open which gets underway today. She will be the fourth seed in this year’s draw and will be playing in the event for the first time since 2022. Last year she was forced to skip the Middle East swing after having surgery to treat an enlarged nodule which was obstructing her airway and preventing oxygen from reaching her lungs. 

“I’m very happy to be back. I’m obviously happier than last year,” she said. “I’m glad to be united with my fans here, and hopefully it’s going be a great week for me.
“I have been struggling with the knee for a long time, and last week was very, very tough. Hopefully, I can recover in time and then play better here in Doha.”  

This time of the year has always meant a lot to the Tunisian, who has spoken on numerous occasions about her aim to inspire more players from her region to take up tennis. She is the first Arab player to reach a Grand Slam final, crack the top 10 in the WTA rankings and qualify for the season-ending Tour Finals. 

“It is very important to be here to connect with Arabic crowds. I feel so much love here in the region, and obviously, that’s one of the reasons I chose to play Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai, because I feel so good here.” She said.

Declaring she is ‘happy’ with her rhythm on the court, Jabeur will begin her campaign in Doha against either Lesia Tsurenko or Turkish wild card Zeynep Sonmez.

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