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Aryna Sabalenka wins second straight Australian Open title, beating Zheng Qinwen 6-3, 6-2

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — In the back of her mind Aryna Sabalenka didn't want to be, in her words, that player who wins a major title and disappears.

Winning her first Grand Slam crown in Australia a year ago gave Sabalenka the confidence she could do it again. Losing the U.S. Open final last September gave her the extra motivation.

Sabalenka ensured she wasn't a one-hit wonder by clinching back-to-back Australian Open titles with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Zheng Qinwen on Saturday in a one-sided women’s final that contrasted sharply with her comeback three-set victory here over Elena Rybakina last year.

“I just wanted to show that I’m able to be consistently there and I’m able to win another one," the 25-year-old from Belarus said. “So compared to last year, it’s a completely different me. Compared to the U.S. Open, once again, it’s a different me; I’m more controlled and kind of like don’t let the rest of the things come to my mind.”

In 2022, Sabalenka struggled so badly with her serve in tense moments that she doubted she could win a major. Now she's relying on it to break down opponents. She didn't serve a double-fault in the final, and she didn't face a break point.

No. 2-seeded Sabalenka set the tone with big, deep forehands and converted service breaks early in each set against the 21-year-old Zheng, who was making her debut in a Grand Slam final.

The journey and the destination were equally important for Sabalenka.

In the semifinals, she avenged her U.S. Open final loss to No. 4-ranked Coco Gauff with a straight-set win. That followed straight-sets wins over 2021 French Open winner Barbora Krejcikova in the quarterfinals and Amanda Anisimova in the fourth round.

“I’m definitely a different person and a player and I have more experience playing the last stages of the Grand Slams,” Sabalenka said, reflecting on the last 13 months. “There was some tough moments for me losing the U.S. Open final — that loss actually motivated me so much to work even harder.”

And that, she said, gave her more confidence in her game and more self-belief.

“The first one is always special because I feel like it’s more emotional,” she said. “For the second time, it’s just such a relief.”

Only two things slowed down Sabalenka's progress Saturday to her second Grand Slam singles title.

In the third game of the second set, with Zheng serving, the match was interrupted after an activist started yelling out. The match continued after the man was escorted out by security.

Then, when she was serving for the match, Sabalenka had three championship points at 40-0 but missed two with unforced forehands errors and another with Zheng's clever drop shot.

After giving Zheng a breakpoint chance, she bounced the ball away behind her in disgust. But she recovered her composure to win the next three points.

Sabalenka is the first woman since Victoria Azarenka in 2012 and ’13 to win back-to-back Australian Open titles, and the fifth since 2000 to win the championship here without dropping a set — a group that includes Serena Williams.

She credited her support team for keeping her on track, and making sure she enjoyed the moment. Sabalenka made a habit of slapping and autographing the bald head of her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy, before each match in Australia.

After the final, Stacy, wearing a shirt with the message “Simplicity is the key to brilliance” printed on the back, held the trophy on the court as Sabalenka huddled with her team in a victory celebration.

A decade after Li Na held the Australian Open trophy aloft, Zheng made her best run in nine majors to date. She said during the tournament that she felt well-supported in Melbourne because of the big Chinese community. And that played out for the final, where the flags waved and she had the crowd behind her.

But she was playing an opponent ranked in the top 50 for the first time in this tournament.

It was the second time in as many majors their paths had met in the second week; Sabalenka beat Zheng in the U.S. Open quarterfinals last year.

Zheng's push to the final was two rounds better than her previous best run to the quarterfinals in New York last September.

She was the first player in four decades to advance through six rounds without playing anyone ranked in the top 50 — and was only the third in the Open era to reach a major final without facing a seeded player.

The step up against No. 2-ranked Sabalenka proved too much.

“I didn’t perform my best. That’s really pity for me, because I really want to show better than that,” Zheng said. "I think I can learn more with the loss today. And then I just hope next time I can come back as a better tennis player and come back, yeah, stronger.”

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