Australian Open final: China’s Zheng Qinwen bidding to emulate idol Li Na against relentless Aryna Sabalenka

China’s Zheng Qinwen will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of compatriot and idol Li Na, who was crowned Australian Open champion a decade ago, when she faces Aryna Sabalenka in Saturday’s final.

Zheng, the No. 12 seed, has enjoyed a favorable run to the final in which she is yet to face a player in the world’s top 50.

Nevertheless, the young Chinese star has played some high-quality tennis throughout her run in Melbourne and, in the semifinals, confidently dispatched dangerous Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska, who had already caused three significant upsets at the tournament.

Zheng, who will climb into the world’s top 10 for the first time, is the first Chinese player to reach a grand slam final since Li lifted the trophy 10 years ago and revealed the two-time grand slam winner had given her advice before her semifinal.

“She tell [told] me: ‘Don’t think too much. Just go for it.’ That’s enough, I think,” Zheng laughed.

Li’s Australian Open triumph was an inspiration to Chinese kids Zheng’s age, the 21-year-old told reporters, adding that Li “means a lot” and “gives a lot of hope” to her generation.

Questions about Li dominated the press conference and before asking another, one journalist apologized for the assembled media being “a little bit obsessed” with the Chinese icon.

“No worries,” Zheng replied, smiling broadly. “We love her.

“Of course, it’s special, it’s my first real time. Li Na won here as well. So that can’t be more special than here in Australian Open.

“We have lot of Chinese crowd supporting me in the stadium. Feels like I play in China. That’s amazing.”

Standing in her way, though, is defending champion Sabalenka, who often looks unbeatable when in the kind of form she has displayed in Melbourne.

One of the sport’s most ferocious hitters, Sabalenka has romped through the draw without dropping a set.

Sabalenka has looked unstoppable at times in Melbourne. - Eloisa Lopez/Reuters
Sabalenka has looked unstoppable at times in Melbourne. - Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

The Belarusian has been at her blistering best so far at the Australian Open, in particular while handing Lesia Tsurenko a crushing double bagel in the third round and in a hard-fought semifinal win over Coco Gauff.

Beating Gauff was a significant victory for Sabalenka, who lost to the American from a set up in the US Open final at the end of 2023.

“Of course, 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,” she joked.

Sabalenka said she has been working on being more aggressive over the offseason after recognizing she had been “a little bit passive” in that US Open final defeat to Gauff.

Whether joking around in training or laughing out on the court, Sabalenka rarely looks as though she is feeling the weight of expectation that comes with being defending champion.

She says she isn’t “ignoring the pressure” but has instead changed her perspective on trying to retain her title.

“I think I’m pretty calm inside as I am outside,” she said. “As I said before, yeah, I’m defending champion, but worst case … I’m going to lose this tournament and it’s less points to defend next year. Then that’s it.

“That’s kind of like helping me to just stay focused and just try your best in each match without thinking about defending something.”

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