How risk and reward strategies will decide who claims the Australian Open women’s title

The balance between power and finesse is always tough to find in the world of tennis. 

The temptation to blast opponents off the court often has to be tempered against the need to work them out of position first with probing ground strokes and perfect placement of deep balls.

Each tournament seems to have slight leans to different types of players. The slow clay of Paris opens up to the scramblers who can keep the ball in play and push it out of the reach of opposition racquets.

After a change to the surface in 2020 to the quicker GreenSet court surface, the Australian Open has particularly favoured power hitters on the women’s side.

Aryna Sabalenka and Qinwen Zheng might have similar, power-driven games but their journeys to make the final couldn’t have been much more different.

Sabalenka will be looking for her second straight Australian Open title — the first player to do so in a decade.

Zheng, on the other hand, has been one of the fastest-rising young players in the world over the past 12 months.

She hadn’t played a grand slam tournament before 2022, and made her first quarterfinal at last year’s US Open.

The 21-year-old has survived the chaotic top half of the women’s draw to be the last player left standing.

Will Sabalenka solidify her reputation as the most dangerous player in the world right now, or will Zheng cap her swift rise to the top of the women’s game?

To protect and serve

Two years ago Sabalenka was on the cusp of being the best player in the world — except for one pretty big thing.

Her biggest weapon, her serve, had deserted her. It cruelled her chances at the 2022 Australian Open, but one tournament doesn’t make a career.

She decided to fix the problem herself, forgoing a psychologist to instead work out the kinks in her serve.

Her service has been arguably the best in the game since then. She has a habit of turning service games into processions, rarely hitting trouble when she starts the point.

Only world number one Iga Swiatek has faced fewer break points — and been broken less often — over the past 12 months than the 26-year-old Belarusian.

Sabalenka has only faced 12 break points for the Australian Open so far, and has been broken just six times. By contrast, Zheng faced 10 break points in her semifinal against Dayana Yastremska alone.

Sabalenka has been able to ride this dominance to enter the final without dropping a set.

These quick service games have placed increased pressure on her opponent’s serves. It has allowed her to find her groove when returning, swinging freely at even slightly loose balls.

Sabalenka’s forehand is her key weapon, more deadly than almost any other player in the women’s game.

“I’m sure the final will be really competitive, because I think Sabalenka, she’s one of the most big hitters right now in the tour,” Zheng reflected after her semifinal win.

That’s not to downplay the strength of her two-handed backhand — which is also one of the better in the game. The combination of her weapons makes Sabalenka one of the toughest challenges to overcome in women’s tennis.

If Sabalenka has a weakness, it rests with her ability to put returns in play off the serve.

Occasionally her positioning and power means that she tries to bite a little too much off on the return.

To combat this, Sabalenka sometimes opts for a safety slice to ensure that she can get in the point — a good move considering how good she is in live points.

Zheng plants the seed

Few predicted Zheng being one of the final two women standing at Melbourne Park fighting for the 2024 Australian Open title.

While Zheng finished the year strongly and has long been tabbed as a rising star of the women’s tour, most eyes get stuck on the very top seeds.

Few also predicted the chaos that would occur in the top half of the draw.

Last year’s finalist and world number three, Elena Rybakina, was knocked out in a second round epic with Swiatek, who was knocked out by 19-year-old Czech Linda Nosková one round later.

Seeds fell like flies, with Zheng the last one standing by the quarterfinals.

Zheng is the first player in the 32-seed era (since 2001) to make a women’s grand slam final without playing a seeded player.

Zheng’s path to the final has benefited from the chaos caused elsewhere. Nonetheless, she has confidently handled each challenge thrown her way.

She has largely ridden her serve throughout the tournament to success. She leads all players for total aces, and has the most aces per match for players who made the second week of the tournament.

Her ability to win points on her first serve is even a touch better than Sabalenka.

That ability to win first serves has come at a slight cost — namely landing first serves in play.

Zheng has led all comers in double faults this tournament. Still, given her ability to win quick points on legal first serves, the aggressive, risk-taking approach usually pays off.

That aggression also extends to her general ground game. Zheng usually sets up solidly at the baseline and is unafraid to overwhelm opponents with big shots.

“I think her forehand is really heavy and she’s also moving well, fighting for every point,” Sabalenka said of Zheng after her semifinal win.

When the ball is in play Zheng’s forehand is her preferred weapon. While she doesn’t force herself to work around to her favoured side as much as other players, there’s a clear bias to where she does most of her damage.

Like her service game, keeping the ball in play is the trade-off to that power. So far this tournament, Zheng has been able to stay on the right side of this balance, but it has gotten her into trouble — most notably against Yafan Wang in the third round.

While Zheng was able to hit 40 winners to Wang’s 20, she also racked up 48 unforced errors compared with Wang’s 31. A similar negative split occurred in her semifinal win over Yestrenska.

The match-up

Sabalenka and Zheng have faced off just once in the past. That happened quite recently, at last year’s US Open.

Sabalenka dominated that match, winning 6-1, 6-4 in just over an hour of play.

Sabalenka won 88.5 per cent of her first serves, denying Zheng even the opportunity of a break point.

Contrastingly, Zheng struggled to get her first serve in play. In the first set of that match-up Zheng landed just 25 per cent of first serves and was only able to win 42 per cent of her second serves.

While she was able to settle as the match went on, the damage was largely done by that point. Zheng tried to play more aggressively when the ball was in play to bridge that gap, but that led to more unforced errors.

The battle for serve dominance will likely play a large role in the final. If Zheng can land her dangerous first serve in play regularly she will be able to attack Sabalenka’s biggest weakness.

For Sabalenka, denying Zheng’s ability to see break points is the easiest path to victory. Expect to see Sabalenka shoot some big serves out wide to set the tone of the match.

Given the attacking weapons both players possess, there may be the temptation to overextend and commit unforced errors. The line between aggressive and reckless is often fine, and the player who can manage it better might just walk out the winner.

Whether Sabalenka joins the rare club of repeat Australian Open winners or Zheng underlines her reputation as one of the best young players in the world, it should be a match to watch.

The Australian Open women’s final starts at 7.30pm (AEDT). Join ABC Sport at as the team live blogs all the action from Melbourne Park, and tune into ABC Grandstand via the ABC Listen app and local radio to listen live.

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