Nadal back in Paris, no title to defend, no Federer to face

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PARIS — Through the years, Rafael Nadal grew accustomed to a couple of givens at the French Open: He would arrive as the defending champion, and Roger Federer would be somewhere in the draw, often awaiting a showdown in the final.

This time around, neither is the case.

Federer withdrew a few days before Sunday’s start of the clay-court Grand Slam tournament, ending his record run of 65 consecutive major appearances.

“For the fans, for the tournament, for the world (of) tennis, in general, is … very negative news, no?” Nadal said.

Nadal won the title at Roland Garros every year from 2005-08 and from 2010-14 – a record nine in all, beating Federer in four of those finals – but returns to town trying to earn back the trophy after relinquishing it in 2015.

He is seeded fourth.

“It’s a tournament that I know I can play well,” said Nadal, who lost in the quarterfinals to Novak Djokovic a year ago. “If I am playing well, I know I can do good things.”

Nadal, who owns 14 major championships in all, could face No. 1 Djokovic in about two weeks in the semifinals – on what would be the Spaniard’s 30th birthday.

Asked about that milestone, Nadal waxed philosophical.

“You know, time never stops. Nobody stops the time,” he said. “That’s not a good thing, but at the same time, I am happy with my life. I enjoyed all these years on the tour, and I hope to keep enjoying the next couple of years.”

After dealing with health problems and a crisis of confidence last season, Nadal has been playing better on his favorite red clay of late.

He is 19-4 on the surface this season, including titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Not bad, but not up to his old standards. In his past two tournaments, Nadal lost in the Madrid semifinals to Andy Murray, and the Rome quarterfinals to Djokovic.

“A lot of tournaments in a row playing well,” said Nadal, who faces Sam Groth in the first round in Paris. “I need to just keep going.”

Other things to know about the French Open, which begins Sunday:

SERENA’S `DROUGHT’: Much was made of Serena Williams’ title in Rome last weekend being her first trophy in nine months. She does not consider that gap a big deal. “I guess when you win all the time, if you go a couple of tournaments and don’t win them, it’s like you’re in a drought,” Williams said. She is the defending champion and seeded No. 1 at Roland Garros, and another title would be her 22nd at a Grand Slam tournament, equaling Steffi Graf for the most in the Open era, which started in 1968.

SECURITY STEPPED UP: From patdowns at entrance gates to a 25 percent rise in the number of security agents, there is an obvious increase in protective measures at the tournament, about six months after terrorist attacks around the French capital. “I notice more security pretty much everywhere,” No. 2-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska said.

OLYMPIC PUSH: A Grand Slam tournament is a Grand Slam tournament, so there is plenty at stake as always over the next 15 days, but there is an added incentive for some players: the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The ATP and WTA rankings of June 6 – the day after the men’s final in Paris – will be the basis for Summer Games qualification.

DOPING TALK: Two recent events put the topic of performance-enhancing drugs on the table in tennis. Maria Sharapova’s positive test for meldonium and provisional suspension are keeping her out of the field at a tournament she won in 2012 and 2014. And Nadal filed a defamation lawsuit in Paris last month against France’s former minister for health and sport, Roselyne Bachelot, after she said on a television show the player’s seven-month injury absence in 2012 probably was due to a positive drug test.

CHEATING: A report about whether tennis was doing enough to investigate possible corruption stirred things up at the start of the Australian Open in January. While the chatter has mostly subsided, the French Open revoked the wild-card entry granted to a French player, Constant Lestienne, because the Tennis Integrity Unit said he violated a rule.

 

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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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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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.