By Shrivathsa Sridhar
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Aryna Sabalenka continued to be an irrepressible force at the Australian Open as she powered to a 6-3 6-2 victory over Chinese 12th seed Zheng Qinwen on Saturday to successfully defend her title and add a second Grand Slam trophy to her cabinet.
The Belarusian second seed has barely put a foot wrong at what has turned into her happiest hunting ground as she became the first woman to retain the Melbourne Park crown since compatriot Victoria Azarenka in 2013.
“It’s been an amazing couple of weeks and I couldn’t imagine myself lifting this trophy one more time,” Sabalenka said.
“I want to congratulate you Qinwen on an incredible couple of weeks here in Australia. I know it’s really tough to lose in the final but you’re such an incredible player.
“You’re such a young girl and you’re going to make many more finals and you’re going to get it.”
Sabalenka came into the match without dropping a set at the year’s first major and stayed perfect to join Ash Barty, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport in the elite club of players to have managed the feat since 2000.
She unleashed monster groundstrokes to grab the final by the scruff of the neck with an early break and thousands of Chinese supporters and millions back home watched Zheng fall behind 3-0.
Sabalenka did not have her nation’s flags in the stands due to a ban over her country’s role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but the charismatic 25-year-old has a big Melbourne fan base and she rode the Rod Laver Arena support to take the first set.
Zheng, who had saved four set points, showed she was slowly growing in confidence in her second meeting with Sabalenka by firing up her own big forehand amid the rallying cry of “Jia You” from her compatriots in the crowd.
A clean crosscourt winner earned Sabalenka a break point in the opening game of the second set and Zheng’s double fault handed it to her on a platter.
The 21-year-old first-time finalist, bidding to match her idol Li Na – the Melbourne Park champion 10 years ago and first Asian and Chinese player to win a major – saw her hopes fade after two more errors on serve left her 4-1 down.
Sabalenka shrugged of shaky service game to close out the most one-sided final since Azarenka beat Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-0 in 2012 by smashing a forehand winner.
“It’s my first final and I’m feeling a little bit pity, but that’s how it is,” said Zheng. “I feel very complicated because I could have done better than I did in this match.”
(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Melbourne, editing by Nick Mulvenney)
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