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Aryna Sabalenka's Australian Open win marked realization of her late father's dream

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus celebrates after defeating Zheng Qinwen of China in the women's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championships at Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Aryna Sabalenka celebrates after defeating Zheng Qinwen in the Australian Open final in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Andy Wong) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Belarusian tennis star Aryna Sabalenka kissed her hands and raised them to the sky. She'd just defeated Qinwen Zheng 6-3, 6-2 for the 2024 Australian Open championship and her second consecutive title in Melbourne, an accomplishment that gave her celebration deeper meaning.

She was thinking of her late father Sergey, who died suddenly in 2019. They envisioned the moment together, so she honored him Saturday in the moments following its fulfillment.

"I lost my father four years ago. We had one dream," she told reporters after the win. "That before 25, I will win a couple of Grand Slams.”

Sabalenka turned 25 in May 2023, and now has two career Grand Slams. But she didn't always think the goal was attainable.

“Well, of course there was a moment where I really didn't believe that I'm gonna win it one day," she added, citing previous struggles with her serve. "But, I just couldn't quit. I felt like I just have to keep doing what I'm doing. I just have to keep fighting for my dream and make sure that if there is something, I want to believe there is something that my father is watching me and very proud of me. So I just couldn't stop — for my family."

She went on to list her sister and mother as part of her drive to continue, while her father continues to be her "biggest motivation."

"He's been everything for me," she said. "But right now I have my mom, my sister, who is here with me, and I feel like I have to think about them. I just feel that he's always with me. I'm very thankful for everything he did for me, and I think if it wasn't for him I wouldn't be here."

Sabalenka offered a dominant performance as she bested Zheng for 75 minutes, completing one of history's most commanding runs to a Grand Slam title. She was a perfect 14-of-14 in sets, dropping just 31 games on her path to the championship win. Only four other women have won at the Australian Open without dropping a set in this century: Ash Barty (2022), Serena Williams (2017), Maria Sharapova (2008) and Lindsay Davenport (2000).

Before Sabalenka, fellow Belarusian Victoria Azarenka in 2013 was the last woman to win back-to-back titles in Melbourne.

Reaching the final four in seven of the last nine major tournaments and playing in three finals, Sabalenka has more challenges ahead. She's the No. 2 player in the world behind No. 1 Iga Świątek.

Now bolstered by her latest showing, Sabalenka has strong momentum for the French Open in May.