Kerber, Konta win on another distracting day in Melbourne

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Angelique Kerber and Johanna Konta advanced to the Australian Open semifinals Wednesday on another day when the integrity of tennis was part of the tournament conversation.

The first Grand Slam of the season has been overshadowed from the start by media reports alleging that tennis authorities had failed to thoroughly investigate evidence of match-fixing.

On Wednesday, just as Kerber began her 6-3, 7-5 win over two-time champion Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals, the governing bodies of tennis announced they will commission an independent review of their anti-corruption unit to restore “public confidence in our sport.”

In announcing the review, ATP Chairman Chris Kermode said the reports had “caused damage to the sport,” which compelled the major stakeholders in tennis – the International Tennis Federation, ATP and WTA tours, and the four Grand Slams – to take quick action to address the issue.

A BBC and Buzzfeed News report which coincided with the start of the Australian Open alleged 16 players – all ranked at some stage in the top 50 – had been flagged for being involved in matches where suspicious betting activity was detected. No players were identified.

Philip Brook, chairman of the Tennis Integrity Board, said while the reports “did not reveal anything new, it was widely written about and has caused damage to our sport.”

With that going on in the background, Konta went on court and beat Chinese qualifier Zhang Shuai 6-4, 6-1 to become the first British woman since 1984 to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam.

It will be Konta’s first semifinal at a Grand Slam, and it ended a seven-match winning streak, including three in qualifying, by Zhang. The 27-year-old Zhang entered the Australian Open with an 0-14 record in Grand Slam matches.

“It will be my first match against her (Kerber),” Konta said. “She’s top 10. She’s an incredibly decorated and successful competitor and player. I’m just going to go out there and bring to the court what I can.”

Kerber went down a break in the second set before winning five consecutive games and saving five set points before beating two-time champion Azarenka, the result coming as a surprise despite the difference in seedings. No. 7 Kerber broke No. 14 Azarenka’s serve to end the match, her first win in seven matches against the Belarussian.

“When I was down 2-5, I was actually playing more aggressive,” Kerber said. “I think the key from this match was that I was playing and I won the match, she didn’t lose it.”

It ended a strong few weeks for Azarenka, who won the Brisbane International and hadn’t dropped a set.

“My footwork didn’t have enough, my shots didn’t have enough,” Azarenka said. “I felt I did a little bit too many unforced errors in the key moments.”

Six-time champion Serena Williams and No. 4-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska will meet in the other women’s semifinal on Thursday.

Two men’s quarterfinals were scheduled for later Wednesday – No. 2 Andy Murray plays David Ferrer and Gael Monfils takes on Milos Raonic.

The independent review announced in a news conference at Melbourne Park, earlier reported by The Associated Press, will be funded by the Tennis Integrity Board, which oversees the anti-corruption unit set up by the sport in 2008 to combat match-fixing. It will be led by Adam Smith, a London-based lawyer who is an expert in sports law.

Kermode acknowledged that the announcement of the review helped keep the topic of match-fixing prominent in and around the tournament action.

“It has been hard on the Australian Open, no question about it,” Kermode said. “Obviously the report was timed to hit at this point, try to create as big a story as possible. But (Australian Open organizers) have been unbelievably supportive of the actions we’ve taken. They agree we had to hit this head-on now even though it was during the championships.”

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

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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.