Wawrinka can chuckle after avoiding historic loss

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PARIS (AP) So, Stan Wawrinka was asked, were you aware that in the long history of the French Open, no defending champion ever had lost in the first round?

“No,” Wawrinka replied quickly, his arms crossed, the hint of a smirk on his scruffy face. After waiting a comedic beat, he added with a chuckle: “And it’s still not the case, so it’s good.”

Sure, by then, it was easy for the 2015 champion at Roland Garros to kid around, because he barely avoided making the sort of history no athlete would embrace. Eventually warming up on a gray, chilly afternoon, and twice coming back from a set down, Wawrinka edged 59th-ranked Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic 4-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 on Monday to sneak into the second round.

“I know that physically I’m stronger than he is, and I knew that he was going to decline a little bit,” said the No. 3-seeded Wawrinka said. “That’s exactly what happened.”

Something similar transpired several hours later, when No. 2 Andy Murray faced an even greater deficit, dropping the first two sets against 128th-ranked qualifier Radek Stepanek, who at 37 is the oldest man in the field. Their match didn’t finish, though, suspended until Tuesday because of darkness.

After the net-charging Stepanek raced to a 6-3, 6-3 lead, his legs began to falter, and Murray started to work his way back into the match.

The two-time major champion took the third set 6-0, and was up a break at 4-2 in the fourth when they stopped. As dusk began to arrive – there are no artificial lights at Roland Garros – Murray accused his opponent of gamesmanship, complaining to the chair umpire that Stepanek was trying to delay the proceedings.

“How many things can he do to slow the play down?” Murray said after Stepanek headed to the locker room following the third set. He added: “Keep an eye on how long this toilet break is.”

After returning to the court, Stepanek changed shirts, drawing a warning for wasting time.

If he was hoping to force the match to another day, it worked. The way he and Rosol challenged two of the top three seeded men was emblematic of the way Day 2 went.

There were no bracket-busting stunners, but the surprises included 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic’s 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 loss to 166th-ranked qualifier Marco Trungelliti of Argentina. Four seeded women exited, most notably No. 7 Roberta Vinci, the Italian who ended Serena Williams’ Grand Slam bid at last year’s U.S. Open.

While Stepanek can rest and regroup, Rosol had no such opportunity to gather himself as he unraveled.

The key moment came with Wawrinka trailing 15-40 while serving at 2-all in the fourth set. Wawrinka saved both of those break points – Rosol helped matters by missing two backhands – and never faced another the rest of the way.

“He (started) to be a little bit tight,” Wawrinka noted.

The temperature was in the 50s (about 15 degrees Celsius) and rain delayed the start for roughly 2 1/2 hours, conditions favoring Rosol. Early on, nothing went Wawrinka’s way. Even his terrific backhand was problematic, including one shank that ended the third set. In all, Wawrinka made 46 unforced errors, 17 on the backhand side.

This should have been easier for him.

Wawrinka is a two-time Grand Slam title winner; Rosol never has made it past the third round in 20 major tournaments and is 110-137 in tour-level matches. His most noteworthy accomplishment was defeating Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2012, displaying the same go-for-broke, flat groundstrokes and intimidating serve he used to such great effect against Wawrinka.

Wawrinka and Rosol played four times previously, with Wawrinka winning each one, most recently Friday at Geneva.

“I wanted … payback,” Rosol said.

Monday’s match was at Court Philippe Chatrier, where Wawrinka’s nearly perfect performance beat Novak Djokovic in the 2015 final. That day, Wawrinka produced what he called “certainly one of the best matches of my career – if not the best.”

His play was a far cry from that against Rosol in the first and third sets, when Wawrinka produced more than half of his unforced errors. But he eventually turned things in his favor.

Asked what emotions he felt returning to the site for the first time since holding the trophy, Wawrinka said he didn’t let those “great” feelings linger.

“I came back to play a match,” he said, “not to enjoy and think about what I did last year.”

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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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.