Aryna Sabalenka underlined why she had long been considered the Australian Open favourite by overpowering Zheng Qinwen to retain the women’s title.
Belarusian second seed Sabalenka won 6-3 6-2 to claim her second Grand Slam singles trophy without dropping a set.
With 12th seed Zheng backed by passionate Chinese support, a composed Sabalenka sucked the energy out of her opponent and the crowd in a fast start.
She is the first woman to win back-to-back since Victoria Azarenka in 2013.
Sabalenka, 25, who became the strong favourite after top seed Iga Swiatek was beaten in the third round, emulated her compatriot Azarenka by completing victory in little over an hour.
“It’s been an amazing couple of weeks and I couldn’t imagine lifting the trophy another time,” said Sabalenka.
Zheng, 21, was playing in her first major final and often looked overawed – by both the occasion and her opponent.
Sabalenka back with a bang
When Sabalenka won in Melbourne last year, the key factors behind her success were remodelling her serve to avoid the double faults which had plagued her and working with a psychologist.
Her development over the rest of the 2023 season led to a a first stint as the world number one and becoming the most consistent women’s player at the Grand Slams.
Sabalenka went on to reach at least the semi-finals at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, but her attempts to win more majors were ruined by moments of uncertainty.
“There are not going to be big wins without really tough losses. You have to trust the process and believe that next time you’ll do better,” she said.
Returning to Melbourne, the experience of already having won there appeared to add an extra layer of belief in a series of composed performances.
Sabalenka dropped just 16 games on her way to the semi-finals – where she then exacted revenge on Gauff in straight sets – before turning her attention to Zheng.
Executing her aggressive approach to near perfection paid dividends.
Sabalenka broke at the first opportunity with a backhand which rocked Zheng, saw off three break points in the next game and continued to force errors from her opponent as she moved towards a clinical victory.
The rare moment of uncertainty in a dominant performance by Sabalenka came when she was trying to close out victory and needed to save a rare break point before taking a fifth championship point.
She took this with a clean forehand crosscourt winner, turning to her team with both arms lifted towards the sky before blowing a kiss.
Zheng unable to provide victory Chinese fans craved
While Sabalenka was trying to replicate the achievement of compatriot Azarenka, Zheng also had a significant moment of history which she was hoping to emulate.
Ten years ago, trailblazing Chinese star Li Na won the 2014 Australian Open to the delight of the nation – and an 11-year-old Zheng who watched on television with her childhood friends.
It would have sparked joyous celebrations – in Melbourne and back home – if Zheng marked the notable anniversary with her own triumph.
In a city with an enormous Chinese community, Zheng was backed by a majority of the 15,000 crowd with excitable fans waving Five-Star Red Flags and homemade banners in their support of a player known as ‘Queen Wen’.
However, she was unable to provide the victory they craved.
As well as looking nervy, Zheng could not cope with the pace of Sabalenka’s groundstrokes as the world number two proved too much of a step up in class.
The Chinese player had not faced an opponent ranked inside the top 50 – including British number one Katie Boulter in the second round – during her run to the final.
“It’s my first final and I’m feeling a little bit [of] pity but it was a good experience at the same time,” said Zheng.
“I feel complicated because I could have done better but I didn’t in this match.”