Two slam wonder? Champ marches into second straight final, Storm loses top ranking, special honour for Aussie legend
Aryna Sabalenka has exacted sweet revenge over Coco Gauff to power into a second successive Australian Open final at Melbourne Park.
After losing last year’s US Open title decider to Gauff in New York, Sabalenka turned the tables with a 7-6 (7-2) 6-4 victory over the American teenager in a blockbuster semi-final at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday night.
Sabalenka is now a hot favourite to beat either Chinese 12th seed Zheng Qinwen or Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska and become the first player since her fellow Belarusian Victoria Azarenka in 2013 to successfully defend their Open women’s crown.
Looking almost unstoppable, the 25-year-old world No.2 has yet to drop a set this campaign and showed enormous resolve in not only snapping Gauff’s 12-match grand slam winning streak but also the fourth seed’s unbeaten start to 2024.
“I was just ready for anything tonight and I think that was the key – and definitely your support guys,” Sabalenka said.
“Last time I played her (in New York), I didn’t have, I would say, almost any support.
“I was able to focus on myself and I was prepared that she’s going to move really good and she’s going to put all balls back to me and I just have to be ready to play an extra shot.”
Gauff won the season-opening WTA event in Auckland and had been hoping to become the first woman to capture back-to-back majors since Naomi Osaka completed the Australian Open-US Open double three years ago.
Instead, Sabalenka is now within a win of shedding her tag as a one-slam wonder on Saturday night after producing her best performance of the tournament.
The second seed made a flying start, holding her first service game to love, while Gauff opened the night with two double-faults and was broken almost in the blink of an eye.
The American broke back to level at 2-2 only to drop three of the next four games to trail 5-3.
Sabalenka failed to serve it out, then missed a set point in the 10th game as Gauff roared to a 6-5 lead.
Alas, this time Gauff was unable to hold and paid the price as Sabalenka raised her game with a clutch tiebreaker to take an all-important one-set-to-love lead.
Six double-faults in the first set cruelled Gauff, but both players stepped up their serves in the second to slug it out with some fierce baseline rallies.
It was Sabalenka, though, who nabbed the only break of the set in the ninth game, before coolly closing out the match after one hour 42 minutes.
Meanwhile Storm Hunter’s breakout – and lucrative – summer has come to an end with defeat in the Australian Open women’s doubles semi-finals at Melbourne Park.
Teaming up for the first time with accomplished Czech Katerina Siniakova, Hunter went down 7-5 1-6 6-3 to Belgian Elise Mertens and Taiwan’s Su-Wei Hsieh on Thursday.
The loss also ended, for the time being at least, Hunter’s two-month reign as the world’s top-ranked women’s doubles player.
Ironically, Mertens will assume that status when the new rankings are released on Monday.
Hunter and Mertens, who reached last year’s Wimbledon final together, parted ways after falling in the semi-finals of the 2023 season-ending champions event in Cancun.
That result was enough to catapult Hunter to the top of the rankings before the 29-year-old revealed Siniakova as her new partner last month.
Siniakova had completed a career grand slam with fellow Czech Barbora Krejcikova, as well as winning an Olympic gold medal as a pairing.
In a twist of fate, Siniakova and Hunter beat Krejcikova and German Laura Siegemund in the Open quarter-finals on Wednesday.
But now Mertens will dethrone Hunter from top spot courtesy of her victory over the new golden girl of Australian tennis on Thursday.
“I have no words to describe this match,” Mertens said after she and Hsieh – coached by former Australian Open tournament director Paul McNamee – battled back from 4-0 down to snatch the opening set on Margaret Court Arena.
A brilliant defensive half-volley from Hsieh off a Hunter backhand overhead secured a decisive service break in the eighth game of the final set.
“It was a very tough match but, I’m very happy with the way we played,” Mertens said.
“Su-Wei saved that point from 4-3 to 5-3, I don’t know what she was doing.
“It was over two hours. Recovery is the key for now. We’ll be back.”
Mertens and Hsieh will play either fourth seeds Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada and Kiwi Erin Routliffe or Ukraine’s Lyudmyla Kichenok and Latvian Jelena Ostapenko in the final.
Hunter will have to console herself with a $475,000 month-long pay day for her memorable summer campaign.
In addition to her run to the Open doubles semi-finals, she helped Australia reach the last four of the United Cup and was the last local standing in the women’s singles with a first-time charge to the third round at a grand slam.
Goolagong Cawley milestone celebrated
Half a century after winning her first Australian Open title, Indigenous icon Evonne Goolagong Cawley has been honoured by tournament organisers.
Goolagong Cawley claimed four Open singles crowns, the first in 1974 when she overcame American Chris Evert in three sets at Kooyong Tennis Club.
The then 23-year-old had already made three consecutive finals, falling twice to Margaret Court (in 1971 and 1973) and once to Britain’s Virginia Wade (in 1972).
Goolagong Cawley lifted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup a further three times – in 1975, 1976 and 1977, when she became the first mother in the Open era to win a grand slam title.
In a ceremony on Rod Laver Arena prior to the women’s semi-finals on Thursday night it was announced that from next year the Open’s annual celebration of First Nations culture during week one of the tournament will be known as Evonne Goolagong Cawley Day.
The Australian Tennis Foundation will host an annual fundraising breakfast named after the seven-time major singles champion, generating money towards Goolagong Cawley’s drive to improve the lives of Indigenous children.
To celebrate 2024’s milestone 50-year anniversary, Tennis Australia (TA) has donated $100,000 to deliver Indigenous programs and continue the former world No.1’s work.
“We are delighted to honour Evonne here at the Australian Open, at Rod Laver Arena, 50 years after her first Australian Open win and before two blockbuster women’s semi-finals,” TA boss Craig Tiley said.
“Evonne exemplifies all that is good and great in our sport, both on and off the court.
“She’s a shining example of humility and grace, and the dedication she’s shown over so many years to helping others is an inspiration to us all.
“We look forward to building on Evonne’s legacy and continuing her extraordinary work.”
Goolagong Cawley had previously been celebrated with a bronze bust at Melbourne Park while she has been inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame.