Djokovic could face Federer in Wimbledon semifinals

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LONDON (AP) Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are used to facing each other in the Wimbledon final. It won’t happen for a third straight year, though.

Federer, the seven-time champion seeded No. 3, was placed in Djokovic’s top half of the Wimbledon draw on Friday. That means top-ranked Djokovic could face Federer in the semifinals as he bids for a fifth consecutive major title and the third leg of a calendar year Grand Slam.

The second-seeded Andy Murray got a more favorable draw, with No. 4 Stan Wawrinka placed in the bottom half as his potential semifinal opponent.

In the women’s draw, defending champion and six-time winner Serena Williams could have a quarterfinal matchup against Roberta Vinci, the Italian who stunned her in the semifinals of the U.S. Open last year and ended her bid for a calendar year sweep of all four major titles.

Djokovic has beaten Murray in the last two Grand Slam finals – the Australian Open and French Open – and goes into the grass-court tournament starting on Monday as a strong favorite for a 13th major championship. Another title would put him only four behind Federer’s record of 17.

Possible men’s quarterfinals: Djokovic vs. Milos Raonic, Federer vs. Kei Nishikori, Wawrinka vs. Dominic Thiem, and Murray vs. Richard Gasquet.

Djokovic, a three-time Wimbledon champion who holds all four Grand Slam titles, will play Britain’s James Ward in the first round.

Murray, the 2013 Wimbledon winner, will face fellow British player Liam Broady in round one.

Federer, playing in his 18th Wimbledon, will open against Argentina’s Guido Pella.

Djokovic could face American Sam Querrey in the third round and David Ferrer in the fourth. Raonic, a big-serving Canadian working with John McEnroe, could provide another stiff test in the quarterfinals.

Djokovic is the first man to hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously since Rod Laver in 1969, and the first to win the first two majors of the year since Jim Courier in 1992.

Murray defeated Djokovic in straight sets in the Wimbledon final three years ago, but has not won a major since. He won the Queen’s Club grass-court tournament last week for a fifth straight time and has Ivan Lendl back as a coach.

Wawrinka could meet former semifinalist Juan Martin del Potro in the second round. The free-swinging Argentine has been beset by injuries and will be making his first appearance at Wimbledon since 2013.

Perhaps the most intriguing first-round men’s matchup has young Austrian star Dominic Thiem vs. 32-year-old German Florian Mayer. It will be a rematch of their semifinal last week in Halle, which Mayer won in straight sets.

In the women’s draw, Williams could face third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinals, with French Open winner Garbine Muguruza in line to play No. 4 Angelique Kerber.

Potential women’s quarterfinals: Williams vs. Vinci, Radwanska vs. Belinda Bencic, Kerber vs. Simona Halep, and Muguruza vs. Venus Williams.

Serena Williams will open her bid for a seventh Wimbledon title against a qualifier or lucky loser to be determined.

Since losing to Vinci at the U.S. Open, Williams fell to Kerber in the Australian Open final and to Muguruza in the French Open final. She is one away from equaling Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22 Grand Slam titles.

Williams’ possible route to the final could see her face Christina McHale, Kristina Mladenovic and former top-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova before meeting Vinci and Radwanska.

Muguruza, who lost to Williams in last year’s final, has an intriguing opener against Camila Giorgi.

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.