Aryna Sabalenka and Zheng Qinwen have advanced to the Australian Open women's final on a night when Aussie legend Evonne Goolagong Cawley was handed a huge honour. Sabalenka got revenge over Coco Gauff with a 7-6 (7-2) 6-4 victory in the first semi-final, before Zheng ended Dayana Yastremska's fairytale run with an equally impressive 6-4 6-4 win.
The night kicked off with Goolagong Cawley being honoured on the 50th anniversary of her first singles title at the Australian Open in 1974. In a ceremony on Rod Laver Arena, it was also announced that from next year the grand slam's annual celebration of First Nations culture in the opening week will be known as Evonne Goolagong Cawley Day.
VERY CHEEKY: Daniil Medvedev admits to lie in press conference
The Australian Tennis Foundation will host an annual fundraising breakfast named after Goolagong Cawley, who won the Australian Open four times and claimed seven singles majors altogether. The breakfast will generate money towards Goolagong Cawley's drive to improve the lives of Indigenous children.
To celebrate the 50-year anniversary, Tennis Australia (TA) has donated $100,000 to deliver Indigenous programs and continue the former World No.1's work. "We are delighted to honour Evonne here at the Australian Open, at Rod Laver Arena, 50 years after her first Australian Open win and before two blockbuster women's semi-finals," TA boss Craig Tiley said.
"Evonne exemplifies all that is good and great in our sport, both on and off the court. She's a shining example of humility and grace, and the dedication she's shown over so many years to helping others is an inspiration to us all. We look forward to building on Evonne's legacy and continuing her extraordinary work."
Goolagong Cawley claimed the first of her four singles crowns at the Australian Open when she beat American great Chris Evert in three sets in 1974. She also lifted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup in 1975, 1976 and 1977, becoming the first mother to win a grand slam title in the Open era.
She had previously been honoured with a bronze bust at Melbourne Park, and is a member of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame. Fans were delighted to learn of her latest honour on Thursday night.
Wow! What an honour
— Linda 🐳 (@lindar_lou) January 25, 2024
— Kim (@Kimmer525) January 25, 2024
I think that's a no brainer. We have Sir Doug Nicholls round in the footy.
— tmmisson (@tmmisson) January 25, 2024
— Operation Tinkerbell 🌈📺🦋🦌.🎾 (@ltihfan) January 25, 2024
Would also love one of the stadiums to be renamed after Evonne please!
— Sulin 🌈 🧴🤲🏼 😷 (@hossieho) January 25, 2024
Indeed, put your hands together for Evonne Goolagong Cawley, an outstanding inspirational (and much loved) Australian…
— Robert Smith (@OnyaDon) January 25, 2024
Will always remember how she always seem to float on court and could get to shots with so much time to hit that it seemed unreal! She was elegance on and off the courts. Loved her.😍
— raymond johnson (@raymond04489465) January 25, 2024
Aryna Sabalenka and Zheng Qinwen in Australian Open final
After losing the US Open final to Gauff last year, Sabalenka turned the tables on the American teenager in a blockbuster first semi-final. The Belarusian is now a hot favourite to topple 12th seed Zheng in Saturday night's decider, which would make her the first player to defend the women's title at the Australian Open since compatriot Victoria Azarenka in 2013.
She paid tribute to female pioneers Goolagong Cawley and Billie Jean King - who were watching from the stands - after her win. “I couldn’t dream of playing in front of you guys," she said. "Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for our sport. It’s a privilege.”
Aryna Sabalenka to Evonne Goolagong & Billie Jean King after reaching Australian Open Final:
“I couldn’t dream playing in front of you guys. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for our sport. It’s a privilege.” ❤️
— The Tennis Letter (@TheTennisLetter) January 25, 2024
The World No.2 told the crowd: "I was just ready for anything tonight and I think that was the key - and definitely your support, guys. Last time I played her (in New York), I didn't have, I would say, almost any support. I was able to focus on myself and I was prepared that she's going to move really good and she's going to put all balls back to me and I just have to be ready to play an extra shot."
Zheng advanced to the first grand slam final of her career on the 10th anniversary of fellow Chinese player Li Na winning the crown in 2014. Li is the only Asian woman to win a grand slam singles title, and is in Melbourne this year hoping to see 21-year-old Zheng become the second.
"I'm super excited to have such a great performance today and arrive in the final," Zheng said. "My opponent, she's playing unbelievable tennis and got really good baseline stroke. Oh, it's tough to explain my feeling now."
Sign up to our newsletter and score the biggest sport stories of the week.