Federer rallies from 2 sets down to reach Wimbledon semis

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LONDON — Roger Federer’s bid for a record eighth Wimbledon title remains alive after he came from two sets down and saved three match points Wednesday before overcoming Marin Cilic in five sets, advancing to the semifinals at the All England Club for the 11th time.

Playing his best when he absolutely needed it most, the seven-time champion finished with his 27th ace to complete a 6-7 (4), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (9), 6-3 victory on Centre Court against the player who knocked him out in semifinals of the U.S. Open two years ago.

“Well, a lot happened out there,” Federer said, summing up the 3-hour, 17-minute battle filled with tension, momentum swings and crucial points.

“I knew I was in so much trouble in the third, and then again in the fourth,” he said. “I’m really, really pleased and just ecstatic I was able to come through somehow.”

It was the 10th time in Federer’s career that he has erased a two-set deficit to win in five sets. This was also his 80th match win at Wimbledon, which equals Jimmy Connors’ record. Federer also matched Connors’ record of reaching the Wimbledon semifinals 11 times.

What’s more, Federer is now two wins away from the all-time record for Wimbledon men’s titles. He’s currently tied with Pete Sampras and 1880s player William Renshaw with seven.

Federer’s semifinal opponent will be sixth-seeded Milos Raonic, who lost serve only once and downed No. 28 Sam Querrey 6-4, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 on No. 1 Court.

Querrey had knocked out No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the third round on Saturday, but came up short in his bid to become the first American to make it to the semifinals of a Grand Slam since Andy Roddick reached the final four at Wimbledon in 2009.

The 34-year-old Federer will now play in his 40th Grand Slam semifinal. He’s the oldest man to get this far at Wimbledon since Ken Rosewall finished runner-up in 1974 at the age of 39. If Federer wins the title, he’ll become the oldest men’s Wimbledon champion in the Open era.

The third-seeded Federer looked down and out after falling behind two sets to love against No. 9 Cilic, a 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) Croatian who kept holding serve, attacking on returns and dominating rallies with his big forehand and two-handed backhand.

It seemed like a replay of their last meeting, when Cilic swept Federer in straight sets in the semifinals en route to the 2014 U.S. Open title.

“I wasn’t seeing his serves anymore,” Federer said. “Next thing you know you’re down two sets to love on grass. I thought he was playing very well, U.S. Open-esque. On the return he was reading my serve. On the serve, I couldn’t read his serve.”

But Federer gradually worked his way back into the match, breaking for the first time to go up 5-3 in the third, saving three match points in the fourth, and playing flowing grass-court tennis on his favorite stage.

After ripping an ace on match point, Federer wagged an index finger in the air to show who was No. 1. He walked off to a standing ovation from an adoring crowd that helped will him to victory.

“It wasn’t going well for me, so for me it was about staying in the match,” Federer said. “Somehow I hoped for his level to drop maybe a little bit, and get a little bit lucky. That’s exactly what happened.”

He cited a key point in the third set, at 3-3, love-40 on his serve, facing three break points.

“I have to pick up a half-volley,” Federer said. “I mean it could go in the stands. It stays in. Next thing you know it’s like you’re still in the match and you can turn it around.”

Federer held serve for 4-3, then broke in the next game, with Cilic double-faulting on break point. The momentum had changed.

In the fourth set, Cilic had more chances to put Federer away but couldn’t. Federer saved two break points at 2-2, hitting three straight aces and a service winner to finish the game.

Cilic then earned his first match point with Federer serving at 5-4, but hit a forehand return long. Another match point came at 6-5, and Federer responded with a 120 mph ace.

Match point No. 3 came at 7-6 in the tiebreaker. Cilic failed to take advantage of Federer’s second serve, hitting another forehand return into the net.

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.