Two top women lose in Paris, complain about rain

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PARIS — Yes, they actually managed to complete a match on this wettest of weeks at the French Open. Two, even. And both involved surprises: Two of the top half-dozen seeded women lost within minutes of each other, No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 6 Simona Halep.

After their fourth-round exits Tuesday, both Radwanska and Halep complained firmly about tournament organizers’ decision to make them play through drizzles – or worse – that made courts slippery and clay-caked tennis balls heavy.

“I mean, it’s not a (low-tier) tournament. It’s a Grand Slam. How can you allow players to play in the rain?” said Radwanska, the 2012 Wimbledon runner-up.

“I don’t think they really care what we think. I think they care about other things,” Radwanska added, saying her racket-wielding right hand gave her problems because she had surgery on it years ago.

Halep sounded a similar tone, noting it was “impossible to play,” and saying: “No one cares about the players, in my opinion. I don’t care that I lost the match today, but I was close to (getting) injured.”

Radwanska dropped 10 consecutive games while being beaten 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 by 102nd-ranked Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria. Shortly before that, Halep lost 7-6 (0), 6-3 to No. 21 Sam Stosur in a contest between two past finalists at Roland Garros.

Alas, of the 12 singles matches on Tuesday’s schedule, those were the only two that finished. Four men’s fourth-rounders – including No. 1 Novak Djokovic against No. 14 Roberto Bautista Agut – were suspended in progress. Four women’s fourth-rounders – including two involving the Williams sisters – never started at all, nor did two men’s quarterfinals.

Halep wondered aloud whether those in charge of the French Open insisted on going forward with matches in the rain because they “are scared” about completing the tournament on time. All play was washed out Monday, the first full day lost at the event in 16 years.

“Not their fault,” she said. “But the decisions were not, I think, the best.”

Radwanska vs. Pironkova originally began Sunday, and Radwanska was three games from victory at 3-0 in the second set when play was suspended. They didn’t make it back on court until Tuesday, began more than an hour late because of more rain, played for about a half-hour, then were halted by a 2 1/2-hour delay.

There were stretches when action proceeded despite drops falling, and – perhaps not surprisingly, given that she won – Pironkova was OK with that.

“Well, it happened before, of course. We have played in all sorts of conditions. Usually if the court is not fit for play, like if it’s slippery, they would cancel the match right away,” said Pironkova, who reached her first French Open quarterfinal. “But today the court was still hanging in. It was OK. We could have played, and so we did.”

The Stosur-Halep match was suspended Sunday during the first set. And 2011 U.S. Open champion Stosur – wearing a green long-sleeved shirt against the chill of temperatures in the 50s (about 15 degrees Celsius) – was better throughout Tuesday.

“It’s not good out there,” Stosur said, “but it was fine for us.”

She is into the quarterfinals in Paris for the fourth time.

“It was really tough, obviously, with the start-stop and having a day off and everything,” Stosur said. “Once you’re out there and it’s raining, it’s not so nice, but that’s the way it is.”

Four of the top 11 players remain in the women’s tournament: No. 1 Serena Williams, No. 4 Garbine Muguruza, No. 8 Timea Bacsinszky and No. 9 Venus Williams. Only Muguruza is already into the quarterfinals; the other three will wait until Wednesday to try to join her.

Djokovic split the first two sets with Bautista Agut as they went on and off court, able to get a total of only 2 hours of playing time.

Djokovic was leading 4-1 in the third when they were interrupted for good Tuesday, along with the other men’s fourth-round matches: Tomas Berdych vs. David Ferrer, David Goffin vs. Ernests Gulbis, and Dominic Thiem vs. Marcel Granollers.

During one break, Djokovic, seeking to win a fourth consecutive major title and complete a career Grand Slam, wandered around Court Philippe Chatrier to check the weather, borrowing a green-and-orange Roland Garros umbrella from a fan.

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.