Serena Williams defeated in U.S. Open semis by Karolina Pliskova

Getty Images
1 Comment

  — Serena Williams was upset in the U.S. Open semifinals for the second year in a row, beaten 6-2, 7-6 (5) by 10th-seeded Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic on Thursday night.

Williams, who clutched at her left leg between points in the second set, double-faulted to end it.

Afterward, her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said Williams injured her left knee in the quarterfinals.

The loss prevents Williams from earning her seventh championship at Flushing Meadows and 23rd major title overall, which would both have been Open-era records.

It also means Williams’ 3½-year reign at No. 1 in the WTA rankings will end. She will be overtaken on Monday by current No. 2 Angelique Kerber, who was to face Caroline Wozniacki in Thursday’s second semifinal.

A year ago, Williams’ bid for a calendar-year Grand Slam ended when she lost in the U.S. Open semifinals to unseeded Roberta Vinci of Italy in the semifinals.

This was the 33rd major semifinal of Williams’ career, and the first for Pliskova, who beat the 34-year-old American’s older sister Venus in the fourth round. Pliskova is only the fourth woman to beat both Williams siblings during the same Grand Slam tournament.

And to think: The 24-year-old Pliskova had never been past the third round in 17 previous appearances at majors.

But on Thursday, she certainly looked the part of an up-and-comer with the strokes and demeanor to go far.

The temperature was in the low 80s, and the air was muggy and still, and Williams kept using the pleats of her black-and-pink skirt to wipe her sweaty palms between points.

Watching Williams miss shot after shot — 31 unforced errors in all — one couldn’t help but wonder why.

One thought: Maybe it was a recurrence of the soreness in her right shoulder that became bothersome in the days right after she won singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon two months ago. Or perhaps it was the toll of the grueling three-set quarterfinal against Simona Halep that concluded less than 22 hours before the semifinal started. But by the latter stages, Williams kept reaching for her left leg.

“She was not moving at all today,” Mouratoglou said. “There was no match.”

Still, Pliskova surely had a lot to do with Williams’ woes. Pliskova’s power is of the sort that Williams so rarely is forced to confront — much like the difficulties the American’s own game presents others.

Pliskova serves well, leading the tour in aces this season, and her angled offerings gave Williams fits. She also returns well, often sending stinging responses right at Williams’ feet, leaving her no time to react properly. And when they engaged in lengthy baseline exchanges, Pliskova’s deep, flat groundstrokes were able to produce the rare sight of Williams back on her heels.

All of 7 minutes in, Pliskova showed she was not shaken by any of it — the stage, the setting, the stakes or the foe — and was going to make this a struggle for Williams. Getting all sorts of pace on returns, including on a 104 mph serve at break point, when Williams sent a backhand long to trail 2-1.

Williams yelled out, “Ai-yai-yai!” and slapped her left thigh.

Pliskova broke again, this time at love, to lead 5-2 thanks to a double-fault and a trio of miscues by Williams. That was part of a stretch in which Pliskova grabbed 10 of the first set’s last 11 points.

Not much later, things were looking decidedly dicey for Williams when she sailed a backhand long to get broken and trail 3-2 in the second. Pliskova, who betrayed little emotion otherwise on this evening, leaned over and pumped her fists.

They had played for 46 minutes, and it was clear who was better. Pliskova sat in her changeover seat, leaned back and exhaled. And then, for the very first time, she showed some nerves, coming out and playing her shakiest game of the match to get broken at love.

Into the tiebreaker they went, and Pliskova jumped ahead 3-0. Then came Williams, never one to back down, going ahead 5-4, just two points from forcing a third set. But she wouldn’t take another point, closing the surprising loss with a sixth double-fault and leaving Flushing Meadows with another disappointment.

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

australian open
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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

us davis cup
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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.