Coco Gauff’s run at the Australian Open came to an end in the semi-finals on Thursday as the 19-year-old U.S. Open champion ran into a foe who has proven too much for everybody at Melbourne Park in the past two years.
Aryna Sabalenka, the big-hitting defending champion from Belarus who crumbled against Gauff and 24,000 delirious fans in the U.S. Open final in September, had plenty of shaky moments in Rod Laver Arena. But Sabalenka played her best tennis in the most important moments, overwhelming Gauff in a first set tiebreaker, then once again down the stretch in the second set to win 7-6(2), 6-4 and reach her third Grand Slam final.
Gauff came into the match off the back of her worst performance in a long time, a mistake-filled win with what she called her “C-game” in the quarter-finals against Marta Kostyuk, of Ukraine. For this one, she changed from her amber skirt and top and technicolor shoes into a more subdued navy. A different look, and, she hoped, a different kind of performance.
It was and it wasn’t — it was better, but not good enough, especially her serve. Gauff double-faulted eight times, a throwback to her early years on the tour. Her second serves were often soft and short, allowing Sabalenka to jump into the court and pound winners past her opponent.
And yet, on a night when both players, especially Gauff, were far from their best, the American star had her chances. In the first set, she saved a set point and charged back from a 5-2 deficit to serve for the set and came within two points of winning it.
And then, after nearly five games punctuated by forehands pounding into the net and backhands sailing long, Sabalenka came alive, her shots darting into the back of the court and sending Gauff scrambling to her knees to get them back.
It looked like Sabalenka had given away her chance to take the early lead in this match after surrendering that 5-2 lead. Now she had the advantage again at the end of the first set, and this time she didn’t cough it up, playing a nearly flawless tiebreaker. She finished it off with a blasted serve that Gauff stretched to lob back but could only watch as it landed a foot off the court.
The way Sabalenka has been playing, really the only player who was going to beat her was herself. With Gauff hanging on for life in the second set, escaping from deficits on so many of her service games, the only question was whether Sabalenka would crack near the finish as she had so many times in the past. That had happened against Gauff in that U.S. Open final, the kind of raw recent memory that can eat at a tennis player.
She didn’t crack. Once more, with Gauff on the brink of a lead late in the second, Sabalenka stormed back, saving her own serve from 3-4, then breaking Gauff in the next game by doing what she had done all night – pounding back those softball second serves and lacing forehands to corners that not even Gauff could chase down.
One more big, unreturnable serve, and Gauff was out, her lunging backhand falling into the net.
(LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images)