MELBOURNE -- Defending champion Aryna Sabalenka returned to the Australian Open final after defeating No.4 Coco Gauff 7-6(2), 6-4 in the semifinals on Thursday night. The World No.2 successfully avenged her US Open final loss to the American to advance to her third major final. 

"It was an incredible match," Sabalenka said. "She's a great player, always tough battles against her. I think the key was that I was able to stay focused no matter what, no matter what the score was, I just kept trying my best, kept fighting for it.

"Of course I'm super happy to be in another final of the Grand Slam. Hopefully I can do a little bit better than the last time."

Sabalenka, 25, is the first player to reach back-to-back Australian Open finals since Serena Williams in 2016 and 2017. She is bidding to become the first player to win back-to-back titles in Melbourne since Victoria Azarenka in 2012 and 2013. She has not lost a set through her six matches in Melbourne, improving her 2024 match record to 10-1.

Sabalenka will face China's Zheng Qinwen on Saturday for the title. 

Rivalry record: Entering the match, Gauff led the head-to-head 4-2, with the pair splitting their two matches last season. Gauff had won her first 10 matches of the year and her last 12 Grand Slam matches.

But Sabalenka has been in perfect form during the Melbourne fortnight, dropping just 16 games to make her sixth consecutive major semifinal. The winner of the match would not only earn a chance to win a second Grand Slam title but also clinch the World No.2 ranking after the tournament. 

How the match was won: Sabalenka dominated the early stages of the match, breaking Gauff twice to build a 5-2 lead. But the 19-year-old methodically drew level by improving her first-serve percentage and drawing out rallies. Serving to close out the set at 5-3, 30-30, Sabalenka showed her first sign of fragility, striking her first double fault to give Gauff a break point, which the American converted to get back on serve.

Turning point: Gauff saved one set point with a blistering 121 mph. body serve to hold to 5-5. With Sabalenka reeling, Gauff broke again to earn a chance to serve out the set at 6-5 and moved to within two points of doing so at 30-0. But Sabalenka came back to take the next four points and force a tiebreak. 

Having steadied herself, the reigning champion turned the tables in the tiebreak. With Gauff struggling to find her first serve, Sabalenka dominated the return and sealed a one-set lead after 57 minutes.

"I wish I could have made more first serves," Gauff said. "I think that was the difference. She had a higher first-serve percentage, and it's tough to also go for the second when you double-faulted a couple times.

"But that wasn't the fault, either. Because I put myself in the position, I cleaned up the first set, put myself in the position to serve out the set. At the end of the day, it came down to a couple of points."

After the rollercoaster first set, the match settled into a more clinical battle in the second. Gauff and Sabalenka exchanged holds until the American served at 4-4. Gauff put a tight forehand into the net at deuce to give  Sabalenka break point and then misfired on a backhand to give Sabalenka the break. Sabalenka served it out to close the 1-hour and 42-minute win. 

"I think in New York I played a little bit passive tennis," Sabalenka said. "I didn't put so much pressure her. I mean, I did in the first set, but then I kind of slowed down and started just trying to play rallies with her, which is not working well.

"The whole preseason I was working on those approach shots, on coming to the net and finish the point on the net. I'm super happy that I was able to do that on court today, and I think that's the difference between these two matches."

Final stats: Sabalenka finished the match with 33 winners to 28 unforced errors. She served at 72 percent and struck four aces. Gauff hit 22 winners to 20 unforced errors, eight of which were double faults. Serving at 57 percent in the match, she won just 39 percent of her second-serve points. 

Gauff was efficient on her break points, converting three of her four chances. But Sabalenka's sustained return pressure made the difference. Sabalenka generated 10 break points in the match and broke four times.

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