After odd win, Djokovic to face Wawrinka in US Open final

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NEW YORK (AP) For quite a while, Novak Djokovic’s opponent in the U.S. Open semifinals, Gael Monfils, looked as if he didn’t want to win – or even be there at all.

That premeditated “great strategy” of hoping to lull the No. 1 seed and defending champion into complacency and mistakes, as Monfils described it later, worked briefly, yet did not prevent a two-set deficit. So he transformed back into his entertaining, athletic self. A sweat-soaked Djokovic sought help from a trainer for aches in both shoulders, and what was no contest suddenly became one.

Monfils forced a fourth set, and Djokovic ripped off his white shirt angrily a la “The Incredible Hulk.”

The ultimate outcome was only briefly in the balance, though. Djokovic regained the upper hand, as he so often does, reaching his 21st Grand Slam final and seventh at the U.S. Open with an eventful and, at times, bizarre 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 victory over Monfils on Friday.

“Well, it was a strange match,” said Djokovic, who will face No. 3 Stan Wawrinka in Sunday’s final, “as it always is, I guess, when you play Gael, who is a very unpredictable player.”

Never more so than on this muggy afternoon, with the temperature at 90 degrees and the humidity above 50 percent. Monfils, now 0-13 against Djokovic, spent most of his news conference defending his unusual approach and said he knew beforehand he might try it.

On ESPN’s telecast, John McEnroe blasted the 10th-seeded Frenchman for lack of effort. The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd jeered him.

“First question is, like, `You’re not competing?’ … Yes, I’m competing,” Monfils said, cursing for emphasis. “I made a sign to my coach (to) say, `OK, I’m going to Plan B.”‘

Djokovic had three set points while serving at 5-1, 40-love, and Monfils transitioned into something that at first blush appeared to be “tanking” – losing on purpose, for who knows what reason – but which he explained afterward was the tennis equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s boxing “rope-a-dope,” absorbing someone else’s best shots and pretending to not be interested in attacking.

Instead of his usual crouch preparing to return serves, Monfils casually stood upright at the baseline, without a worry in the world, looking like someone waiting to place his takeout espresso order. During points, Monfils would hit slices or make halfhearted, half-swinging strokes, then occasionally wallop a 100 mph passing shot.

“For sure, people are not really ready to see that,” Monfils said. “Definitely, I try to get in his head, try to create something new for him to see.”

Somehow, the tactic was effective, for a short while, anyway.

“I was completely caught off-guard,” Djokovic acknowledged.

Miscue after miscue arrived from Djokovic, and Monfils won three games in a row, before eventually dropping a set for the first time all tournament.

“I thought, at times, that he was maybe behaving a little bit – for some terms and judgments – unacceptable,” Djokovic said. “But I guess that was part of his tactics. If he said that you have to believe him, I guess.”

Djokovic will try for his third U.S. Open championship and 13th major trophy overall against Wawrinka, whose first final at Flushing Meadows came via a 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 victory over No. 6 Kei Nishikori that lasted more than 3 hours and finished with the roof shut. Djokovic has won 19 of 23 previous meetings, but Wawrinka did win their 2015 French Open final for his second Grand Slam title.

Djokovic entered Friday having enjoyed the easiest path to a major semifinal in the nearly half-century of the Open era: Three of his first five foes pulled out of because of injuries. Then came this 2 1/2-hour miniseries, topping them all for oddness.

In the second set, Monfils lost five consecutive games, and limped afterward. Soon, Djokovic led 2-0 in the third, breaking on a double-fault that drew boos and whistles. All over but the shouting, right? Nope. In a blink, Monfils awoke. When he broke to get to 2-all, he raised his right fist and the fans roared, now backing him.

Monfils was now at his best, including one spectacular point in which he took a long run to get to a short ball, then reversed direction for a leaping volley winner.

Hours before the match, Djokovic clutched at his back during a practice session in Ashe. Behind 5-2 in the third against Monfils, Djokovic got his left shoulder massaged. Later, it was time for help with the right shoulder during a medical timeout. By the end, he was hitting second serves in the high 70s. These would constitute new trouble spots for the Serb, who arrived in New York with concerns about his left wrist, then got treatment on his right elbow during his first- and fourth-round matches, the only ones he needed to complete until Friday.

Asked what worries he might have about his health, Djokovic replied, “Thankfully, it’s behind me. So I don’t have any concerns.”

In the late going, Monfils was leaning over and leaning on his racket between points. More examples of playing possum? Perhaps. But Djokovic showed his own signs of distress in the energy-sapping conditions.

After all of that, Djokovic will play Sunday for his third Grand Slam championship of the season. He won the Australian Open in January, and the French Open in June – when the theatrics were at a relative minimum by Friday’s standards.

 

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

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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.