Our experts make their predictions for Saturday’s Australian Open women’s final (3:30 a.m. ET; ESPN and ESPN+).
Pam Shriver: Sabalenka will win because her power game and overall confidence has never been at a higher level. She has won 13 matches in a row at Melbourne Park, including winning last year’s final versus Elena Rybakina in one of the best women’s major finals ever played. She just avenged her US Open loss to Coco Gauff with a spectacular closing surge in the semifinals. Sabalenka’s serve in two years has gone from being an embarrassment, with one of the worst service yips ever, to one of the best serves in women’s tennis.
Bill Connelly: Until she runs into an actual challenge, all she has to do is play her game. She has won 20 of 22 sets in 2024. She’s holding serve more than she ever has, with more aces, fewer double-faults and more first serves in. She’s breaking serve far more than she ever has and winning more than 50% of return points. She’s been untouchable aside from a finals dud against Elena Rybakina in Brisbane. It’s up to Zheng to prove she can meet this ridiculously high level; until then Sabalenka doesn’t have to change a thing.
D’Arcy Maine: Exactly what she has been doing throughout the fortnight. Sabalenka has had an incredible run back to the final, dominating her opponents with her explosive power and staying aggressive until the last point has been won. She has yet to drop a set. After her semifinal win, Sabalenka admitted she had played “a little bit passive tennis” during her loss in the US Open final in September and said she eased up the pressure on Gauff.
But in her rematch with Gauff on Thursday, Sabalenka made sure not to make the same mistakes. Even after blowing a 5-2 lead in the opening set, Sabalenka held her nerve and won the set in a tiebreak. That mentality shift — and continuing to play her game — could be the difference on Saturday. Now playing in her third major final, and second in Melbourne, Sabalenka knows exactly what she needs to do to win when the stakes are highest. With experience on her side, she said she would be able to treat it like “just another match.” If her first six matches in Melbourne are any indication, that strategy should work just fine.
Jake Michaels: It’s simple: continue playing aggressive, confident tennis. Sabalenka has unquestionably been the best player at this tournament. She’s yet to drop a set in route to the final and, aside from a brief scare against Gauff in the semifinals, hasn’t really looked close to losing one. Sabalenka is striking the ball cleanly and hitting a higher percentage of winners per match than anyone else who made it past the second round. What’s even scarier? The world No. 2 is making fewer errors than she did in last year’s run to the title at Melbourne Park.
Matt Walsh: The others really have covered all the bases here — Sabalenka’s power ground game has been her biggest weapon this tournament, and a big reason why she hasn’t dropped a set so far. Her semifinal against Gauff did show there was some room for improvement; some of her unforced errors were sloppy (28 compared to 13 in her quarterfinal win, for example), and she gave up a 5-2 lead in the first to allow Gauff back into the contest. But broadly, she’s on track to go back-to-back.
What can Zheng do to defeat Sabalenka?
Shriver: Zheng must play a complete match at her top level to beat Sabalenka. While it’s not easy to do this in your first major final, it can and has been done. While Sabalenka is considered the best power player in today’s women’s game, she has had some huge collapses in the late stages of majors in recent years, including a couple since winning last year’s Australian Open.
Zheng, while focusing on her own improving power game, must keep in mind that Sabalenka has some terrible memories trying to close out major matches from winning positions. Zheng’s coach Pere Riba would have learned a lot helping coach Gauff to the US Open championship; Gauff beat Sabalenka after dropping the first set. Zheng must tap into the inspiration from Riba and even from meeting Li Na here in Melbourne, who won this championship 10 years ago.
Connelly: Zheng has done a nice job of raising her game when required in her short career. She’s taken a set off of Iga Swiatek three times in five matches, and while her path to the final in Melbourne has been pretty easy, she’s still won two of her last three against top-10 foes after losing nine of her first 13. Sabalenka has established a ridiculously high level of late, but Zheng’s is rising rapidly, too.
We’ll be able to tell pretty quickly if this is going to be a match. In her last two losses to top-10 foes — Rybakina in Beijing in October, Swiatek in the United Cup this month — she double-faulted 16% of the time and got blown out. She couldn’t land her first serve and couldn’t do the slightest bit of damage with her second. And in her lone match against Sabalenka it was a similar story: She landed just 25% of her first serves in a 1-6 first set and never had a chance. You’re not going to get many break chances against Sabalenka, so you have to hold serve yourself. If Zheng is serving well early, she might have a chance.
Maine: Well, let’s start with the obvious here: It’s going to be tough. Zheng didn’t exactly have the most challenging road to the final to prepare her for Sabalenka. She didn’t face a single seeded player, nor did she play anyone currently ranked inside the top 50. In fact, the average rank of her opponent in Melbourne in her first six matches was 81.
But that was by no fault of her own. And on display throughout has been her impressive serve, dominant forehand and nerves of steel, even as she got to unchartered territory at a major. Dayana Yastremska, whom Zheng defeated in the semis, seemed to think that combination would be enough to defeat Sabalenka. “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, I will say, [win] pretty easy,” Yastremska said on Thursday. Why not, right?
Michaels: It’s a magical run Zheng has been on in Melbourne, but if it’s to result in her lifting the trophy Saturday, she must make more first serves. Only three players in this tournament have won a higher percentage of points when they land a first serve than Zheng. The problem? She ranks 115th of 128 in first serves made, and in no match this fortnight has she hit a mark of 60%. Zheng cannot afford to dish up a bunch of second serves to Sabalenka, perhaps the most aggressive player on tour.
Walsh: This is a great question — I think it’ll be difficult but not impossible. She has the right mentality to be a Grand Slam champion, but Sabalenka has the experience. I’m sure Zheng will look at the first set of Sabalenka’s semifinal and see that there are opportunities to get on a run; Sabalenka was 5-2 up on Gauff in the first and only ended up winning the set in a tiebreak. If Zheng can serve well, stay focused and pounce on any drops from Sabalenka, it may be enough to see her lift the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
Who will win?
Shriver: Sabalenka is ready to win major No. 2 with her experience and high-powered game.
Rennae Stubbs: Sabalenka to win. I think she has the experience and the knowledge now to handle this moment, especially when she has already done it here in Melbourne. Her last match against Zheng will also help her to know she can win.
Connelly: Zheng’s recent ascent is similar to what we saw from Gauff leading up to the US Open final against Sabalenka. She has won 17 of her last 19 matches, going back to that one against Rybakina in Beijing. And even against an easy Australian Open draw, she’s mostly looked the part. But this bar might be too high. Zheng will have to serve huge and steal whatever break points she can create. It’s probably too much to expect. Sabalenka is too good right now, and she likely takes her second straight AO crown.
Maine: Sabalenka has been laser-focused on defending her title throughout the tournament, and it’s hard to see anyone — especially someone playing in her first major final — stopping her. Sabalenka won their only previous meeting in the 2023 US Open quarterfinals 6-1, 6-4, and while this match certainly should be more competitive, the end result will be the same. Sabalenka will take home her second Australian Open title on Saturday.
Michaels: Sabalenka. She has done it before and will do it again. No other player, Zheng included, has been in the same stratosphere as Sabalenka this tournament. She’s well rested and focused, and she knows exactly what it takes to lift the trophy in Melbourne.
Walsh: Sabalenka. Experience, form, the fact that she’s enjoying her tennis and her time in Melbourne — she’s the favorite for good reason.