Gong Show: After let call, Murray loses at Open; Serena wins

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NEW YORK (AP) Andy Murray lost his way, seven consecutive games and, eventually, his riveting five-set U.S. Open quarterfinal against Kei Nishikori after a loud noise from a malfunctioning sound system interrupted a key point, resulting in a do-over.

Whether or not the gong-like sound, and chair umpire Marija Cicak’s let ruling, was the reason that Nishikori wound up coming back to win 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 on Wednesday, it surely will be what’s most remembered about the back-and-forth, 4-hour match.

After all, Murray’s extended discussions with Cicak and another official about the unusual episode came during a stretch in which he dropped 12 of 14 points.

He went from a lead of two sets to one, plus a break point at 1-all, to ceding the fourth set and trailing 2-0 in the fifth.

“I could have won the match for sure,” said Murray, the No. 2 seed and 2012 champion at Flushing Meadows.

Murray acknowledged a brief dip in play, but preferred to focus on other reasons for allowing the sixth-seeded Nishikori to reach a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time since he was the U.S. Open runner-up two years ago.

“I broke serve enough times,” Murray said. “I just didn’t hold serve enough. That was the difference.”

Perhaps.

But Murray complained about the ruling right away, gave away the next three points to lose the game, then brought it up again with Cicak at the ensuing changeover, saying something similar had happened earlier and play had continued.

“Exactly the same thing,” Murray exclaimed. “And I told you.”

He also spoke to a tournament supervisor about it, pleading his case and saying, “That’s not fair.”

That same type of noise came from the speakers again at 4-1 in the fourth set. It also had happened during a women’s match Monday night between Ana Konjuh and Agnieszka Radwanska.

The U.S. Tennis Association said Wednesday that a “digital audio sound processor” was at fault and would be replaced before the night session.

Despite all the fuss, Murray went ahead 5-4 in the fifth. But he wouldn’t take another game. At 5-all, 30-all, Murray double-faulted to set up break point, and Nishikori converted by reaching for a stretch volley winner.

Murray slammed his racket against the net and cursed. Soon enough, his career-best run of reaching seven straight tournament finals was done.

“I would have loved to have gone further,” Murray said, “but it wasn’t to be today.”

He had won 26 of his previous 27 matches, including a second Wimbledon championship and a second Olympic gold medal, beating Nishikori in straight sets in the semifinals at Rio de Janeiro.

This time, Nishikori came through, helped by a series of effective drop shots and an ability to keep his nerve over the closing three games.

“It was too exciting on the court, but I tried to stay calm,” he said. “It was really tough to stay calm. … There were many ups and downs.”

In the women’s quarterfinals, Serena Williams was broken for the first time in the tournament, and lost a set for the first time, too, but eventually got past No. 5 Simona Halep 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. A year ago in the U.S. Open semifinals, Williams’ bid for a calendar-year Grand Slam ended with a loss to unseeded Roberta Vinci of Italy.

On Thursday, Williams faces 10th-seeded Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, who reached the first major semifinal of her career by eliminating the 18-year-old Konjuh 6-2, 6-2. The other women’s semifinal is No. 2 Angelique Kerber vs. two-time runner-up Caroline Wozniacki.

Nishikori will face the winner of Wednesday night’s quarterfinal between 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro and No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka. The other men’s semifinal Friday is No. 1 Novak Djokovic against No. 10 Gael Monfils.

At 3-all in the second set of Murray vs. Nishikori, rain interrupted play for the second time in the match. The retractable roof atop Ashe was shut during the second, longer shower, and the break of about 20 minutes gave Nishikori’s coach, 1989 French Open champion Michael Chang, a chance to run through the concourse to get down to the locker room and consult with his player.

“That helped me a lot to regroup the tactics,” Nishikori said. “I (had) to change something to win the match.”

Maybe that made a difference. Murray also thought playing indoors helped Nishikori fare better in his return games. Indeed, Nishikori took that set by breaking in its last game, as Murray slapped a backhand into the net to close a 15-stroke exchange.

The edge went back to Murray late in the third, when he broke to lead 5-4 as Nishikori missed a backhand. Murray roared and punched the air as he went to the sideline. His coach, eight-time major champion Ivan Lendl, did not exactly mirror that celebratory mood, sitting with chin on hand up in the guest box.

Murray served out that set at love and seemed to be in good shape, up two sets to one. At 1-all in the fourth, though, everything changed.

 

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.