US Open Lookahead: Serena vs. Venus with Slam bid on line

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NEW YORK (AP) So there’s at least one person with zero interest in watching the Williams sisters play each other in the U.S. Open quarterfinals Tuesday night, with Serena’s bid for a calendar-year Grand Slam on the line.

Their mother, Oracene Price.

“It’s just hard to see them both going out there,” Price said, “and you know they both want it.”

Unique and extraordinary dynamics are always involved when 21-time major champion Serena Williams faces older sibling and seven-time major champion Venus Williams in a professional tennis match. This will be their fifth meeting at Flushing Meadows (each has won twice), the 14th at a major tournament (Serena leads 8-5), and 27th overall (Serena leads 15-11).

They met two months ago in the fourth round at Wimbledon, and Serena won in straight sets (Price also stayed away from Centre Court that day).

Throughout the U.S. Open, various players have been asked what it would be like to beat No. 1-seeded Serena in New York and end her attempt to become the first player in 27 years to win all four major titles in a single season.

But what must it be like for the 23rd-seeded Venus to try to thwart such an effort by her little sister?

“I don’t know. You have to ask Venus that question,” Price said. “I know it’s going to be hard, because I know (Venus) wants (Serena) to get it. But what can you say? You know they’re competitors.”

And Venus’ take?

“I don’t think anyone wants to be a spoiler. I think people love to see history being made,” she said. “No one is out to be a spoiler, but at the same time, you’re focused on winning your match, even though the circumstances are really much different.”

As for how she goes about preparing for this matchup, Venus said: “Even though you’re playing your sister, you have to be prepared and focus. The preparation doesn’t change.”

Venus, born 15 months before Serena, has been in a similar spot before. She was the opponent in every final when Serena won four major titles in a row from the 2002 French Open to 2003 Australian Open.

The top-ranked man, Novak Djokovic, couldn’t imagine being in the situation the Williams family finds itself in.

“The first thing that comes to my mind is how would I feel to play my brother, and I don’t think that would be possible, honestly,” said Djokovic, whose younger brother, Marko, has played at lower levels. “I, in a way, admire what they’re doing for so many years – to play against each other on such a big stage.”

Before they started traveling the world together, practicing together, occasionally playing doubles together, and collecting Grand Slam singles titles and the No. 1 ranking, Venus and Serena Williams were a couple of kids learning to play tennis from Dad on a hard court in Compton, California.

And they used to play each other back then, too, of course.

There wasn’t a big crowd, and no one was watching on TV, either.

While Serena has earned the victory in six of their past matches with money and ranking points at stake, it wasn’t always so.

“I used to always win,” Venus said, “in the early days.”

Here are other things to watch Tuesday at the U.S. Open:

VINCI VS. MLADENOVIC

Whichever Williams sister wins will move on to next face an unseeded woman who never before has been to the singles semifinals at a major tournament: Tuesday’s other women’s quarterfinal is 43rd-ranked Roberta Vinci of Italy vs. 40th-ranked Kristina Mladenovic of France. Vinci advanced when her fourth-round opponent – 25th-seeded Eugenie Bouchard, the Canadian who was the runner-up at Wimbledon last year – withdrew because of a concussion.

MEN’S QUARTERFINALS

Djokovic meets No. 18 Feliciano Lopez of Spain at night after Williams vs. Williams, and defending champion Marin Cilic takes on No. 19 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France in the afternoon.

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.

And if she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top of tennis.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam title match at age 24 by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she has contested this season.

More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt by a 6-4 score in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners, but also compiled more unforced errors – including a trio that led to a break at love by Linette in the opening game.

The key to both semifinals turned out to be a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, for the most part, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.

“In the tiebreaker, I really found my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Started trusting myself. Started going for my shots.”

Rybakina’s win over Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. She also beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – both owners of major titles – and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”

She delivered serves at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will on Thursday. Her performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are rather misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow; she switched to Kazakhstan in 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That had a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand – and then ceding it just as quickly. Both found the conditions slowed down the tennis balls.

“Kind of misjudged a lot of balls,” Azarenka said.

Rybakina encountered similar issues and her occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point at 5-3 with a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot, wound up taking the game with a backhand she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set belonged to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they competed for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”

Paul, McDonald on US Davis Cup team; Nainkin interim captain

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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul and the player who eliminated Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park, Mackenzie McDonald, are among the players picked by interim captain David Nainkin for the U.S. Davis Cup team’s matches at Uzbekistan next week.

Nainkin’s appointment was announced Friday, three weeks after Mardy Fish’s tenure as captain ended.

Nainkin has been with the U.S. Tennis Association since 2004. He will be assisted against Uzbekistan by Dean Goldfine, who coached 20-year-old Ben Shelton during his quarterfinal run at the Australian Open.

Paul beat Shelton in that round before losing to Novak Djokovic on Friday night.

The other members of the U.S. roster are Denis Kudla, Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek. Kudla replaces Jenson Brooksby on the team.

The matches will be played on indoor hard courts on Feb. 3-4.