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Aryna Sabalenka powers past Zheng Qinwen in straight sets to defend Australian Open title

Aryna Sabalenka secured a dominant defense of her Australian Open title as she brushed aside first-time finalist Zheng Qinwen in the championship match.

The world number two lifted her first grand-slam trophy at Melbourne Park 12 months ago and has been untouchable this fortnight.

She did not drop a set in seven matches and defeated Zheng 6-3 6-2 to become the first player since countrywoman Victoria Azarenka 11 years ago to claim back-to-back titles.

Zheng, who had not had to face a top-50 player through the first six rounds, had hoped to emulate the watching Li Na and claim the title for China a decade on.

But the 21-year-old, the 12th first-time slam finalist in the women’s game in the last three years, was up against it from the start and Sabalenka wrapped up victory in only 76 minutes despite a brief disruption from pro-Palestine protesters.

Zheng was the first player this century to reach a slam final without facing a seeded opponent, and the low rankings of her opponents made this a huge step up.

Early nerves were evident and Sabalenka set straight about seizing on the Zheng serve, breaking for 2-0 and then holding from 0-40 in another statement of intent.

Zheng has struggled with the consistency of her serve this tournament but, when she has made the first delivery, it has been very effective, and two aces helped her get on the board in the fourth game.

The Chinese fans in the crowd were making their presence felt but, while Zheng came up with more big serving to save three set points at 5-2, Sabalenka finished it off decisively on her own delivery.

The Belarusian has ridden emotional highs and lows throughout her career, and her stellar 2023 could have brought her more than one slam title had she not wobbled in defeats by Karolina Muchova, Ons Jabeur and Coco Gauff.

The latter came in the US Open final after Sabalenka had dominated the first set, but here she has been steely on and off court, claiming a cathartic win over Gauff in the semi-finals.

Zheng had won just five games in their only previous meeting in the quarter-finals in New York last summer, and her hopes of doing better were hit by a disastrous start to the second set, serving three double faults in the opening game.

With Zheng trying to hold in the third game, the match was briefly delayed when two spectators held up a Palestinian flag in the stands and shouted until they were hauled away by security to cheers from the remaining fans.

Zheng kept her composure to get on the board but her serve had really dropped off and Sabalenka broke again to lead 4-1.

Zheng managed some brief late resistance, saving four match points, but Sabalenka crunched a forehand winner on her fifth chance before thrusting her arms into the air.

Sabalenka received the trophy from Evonne Goolagong Cawley on the 50th anniversary of her first singles title here.

Afterwards, she said: "I want to congratulate Qinwen on an incredible couple of weeks. I know how tough it is to lose in the final but you're such an incredible player and you're going to get it.

"It's been an amazing couple of weeks. I couldn't imagine myself lifting this trophy one more time. It's an unbelievable feeling.

"I never speak about my family in these speeches but I have to say thank you for everything they've done for me. I love you so much, you're my biggest motivation. I can't wait to come back."

Zheng, who will break into the top 10 on Monday, said after receiving her runners-up plate: "I want to say congrats for Aryna to have such a wonderful match here.

"It's my first final here and I'm feeling it's a little bit of a pity but I want to say thanks to all the fans who come here to watch me. I feel I could do better in this match but I want to say thanks to my team who helped me arrive here."

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