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Sabalenka returns to Australian Open final, will face Zheng

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Aryna Sabalenka has taken her Australian Open title defense all the way back to the championship match because she has applied a crucial lesson from her U.S. Open final loss to Coco Gauff.

She kept reminding herself the next point is often more important than the one she'd just lost.

So when she had missed a set point and a chance to serve out the first set, and then gave Gauff an opportunity to serve for a one-set lead, she was prepared to “let it go” and just keep swinging.

The No. 2-seeded Sabalenka attacked Gauff’s serve with her powerful returns and unloaded 33 winners in total in a 7-6 (2), 6-4 semifinal victory Thursday night that earned her a spot in Saturday's decider against first-time finalist Zheng Qinwen.

Sabalenka won her breakthrough major here last year, and reached the semifinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon before losing the U.S. Open final to Gauff.

Now she's 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. “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.

Zheng lost in the U.S. Open quarterfinals to Sabalenka last year in her best previous run at a major but said she's more prepared this time.

Reaching the final a decade after Chinese compatriot Li Na won the Australian title almost completes a dream, she said. 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) ... but, you know, it's a match, so let’s see what's going to happen in the final.”

Sabalenka said she'd been “ready for anything” against Gauff, and was happy to have some support in the crowd 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, and was on a 12-match winning streak in majors.

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.

In the tiebreaker, Sabalenka raced to 5-1 and chants of “Coco, Coco” echoed around Rod Laver Arena, where the roof was closed because of rain.

It didn't help Gauff, who 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, 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 the way she was able 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 some older news, 43-year-old Rohan Bopanna and Matthew Ebden advanced to their second consecutive Grand Slam men’s doubles 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.

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis