Zheng Qinwen Gives China An Australian Open Finalist A Decade After Li Na. Aryna Sabalenka Awaits

FILE - In this Jan. 25, 2014, file photo, Li Na, of China, holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy after defeating Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in their women's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia. (AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 25, 2014, file photo, Li Na, of China, holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy after defeating Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in their women's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia. (AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill, File)
View All (12)

Zheng Qinwen earned a spot in her first championship match at any Grand Slam tournament — she'll face Aryna Sabalenka for the Australian Open title on Saturday — by winning a semifinal at Melbourne Park that came 10 years to the day after another Chinese woman, Li Na, claimed the trophy there.

Li, who also won the French Open, is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and remains the only player from her country to earn a major singles title. She was a trailblazer, serving as inspiration for Zheng when she was a kid learning the sport in China. The two spoke in person for the first time during this Australian Open, and Zheng credits Li with offering some key advice.

“She (told) me: ‘Don’t think too much. Just go for it,’” the 12th-seeded Zheng said after eliminating qualifier Dayana Yastresmka 6-4, 6-4 on Thursday. “That’s enough, I think.”

That approach has carried Zheng this far, but it's likely some exceptional play will be required to derail defending champion and second-seeded Sabalenka in the final, which is scheduled to begin Saturday at 7:30 p.m. local time in Melbourne (3:30 a.m. ET).

Sabalenka, a 25-year-old from Belarus, hasn't dropped a set during the past two weeks. Her 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory over Coco Gauff in the semifinals — a rematch of the U.S. Open final won by the American teen in September — made Sabalenka the first woman to reach consecutive title matches at the Australian Open since Serena Williams made three in a row from 2015-17, winning two of them.

“One more to go,” said Sabalenka, a finalist at three of the past five hard-court Slams.

Sabalenka, who briefly displaced Iga Swiatek at No. 1 in the rankings last season, has only faced Zheng once, beating her in the U.S. Open quarterfinals a few months ago. But they have practiced together often, including in Australia, and Sabalenka offered a scouting report about Zheng's style that sounds similar to what folks say about Sabalenka's: “Really aggressive tennis.”

Both thrive with big serves — Zheng leads the women's field in aces by a wide margin — and powerful forehands.

One edge for Sabalenka: She's been here before.

After losing to Zheng, Yastremska sized up the final, saying: “If she will be able to stay stable emotionally — and if she will be able to hold her level up like she (did) today pretty well in important moments — she can win. And she can win, I will say, even pretty easy.”

Hmmmm. Perhaps.

Sabalenka represents a major step up in quality. Until now, Zheng has not had to play anyone ranked inside the Top 50 through her half-dozen matches, instead playing foes who are Nos. 54, 75, 76, 93, 94 and 95.

Still, to those who've been paying attention, Zheng is not a revelation, someone who suddenly managed to sneak her way this far at a major.

Still just 21, she's been climbing up the ranks, and the rankings, for some time now, earning year-end WTA honors for being the newcomer of the year in 2022 — when she was the only player to take a set off eventual champion Swiatek at the French Open — and comeback player of the year in 2023.

Now Zheng will make her debut in the Top 10 in Monday's rankings, regardless of the outcome against Sabalenka.

And Zheng found it meaningful that her own breakthrough came at the site of one of Li's biggest successes.

“She means a lot, I think, for all the Chinese kids (my age). Because, I think, she’s the first one who won the Slams. I mean, that’s unbelievable for an Asian woman in that moment,” said Zheng, whose coach, Pere Riba, was part of Gauff's team at the end of last season. “She gives a lot of hope in that moment (to) young kids.”

You have to see it to be it, as Billie Jean King likes to say.

And now Zheng could provide the same sort of spark for a new generation. The Rod Laver Arena stands were dotted by Chinese flags and signs held by spectators who offered plenty of support.

Zheng addressed them in Mandarin to offer thanks after closing out Yastremska with a service winner.

She said later that it felt as though she were playing at home.

When Li appeared as a guest of Tennis Australia earlier in the tournament, she was asked what it means to see Zheng playing well.

“Good for her, for (Chinese) tennis,” Li said.

___

AP Sports Writer John Pye in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to this report.

___

Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Find his stories here: https://apnews.com/author/howard-fendrich.

___

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