Harrison beats Basilashvili to win Memphis Open

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Ryan Harrison served up the ace that won him his first career ATP World Tour title, then stuck both hands over his head pointing index fingers skyward in celebration.

A tour title.

Finally.

Better yet, Harrison won before family, friends and supporters who watched him grow up in Shreveport, Louisiana, on a court at the tennis club he knew intimately before ever playing his first professional match here.

Harrison beat Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia 6-1, 6-4 on Sunday to win the Memphis Open at The Racquet Club.

“It’s always special to win a title, and especially your first one,” an emotional Harrison said. “But when you’re winning it like this in front of our family and friends and people who’ve come out and supported you ever since I was playing 10 and under events … it definitely means a lot to win that in front of everybody like that.”

Harrison, 24, took the first set in 27 minutes before fighting off 10 break points in the second to win the match in 1 hour, 16 minutes. For the match, Harrison saved all 12 break points faced.

He took home the winner’s check of $114,595 and 250 points. This victory is expected to move Harrison to No. 43 in the world, matching his career-best ranking reached in July 2012. Since then, the American had dipped to as low as 197 in the rankings as recently as Oct. 20, 2014. Last March, Harrison was just 168th to make this climb back even more special.

“For me to be where I am now and where I was seven, eight months ago and feeling like there was no light at the end of the tunnel, it’s surreal,” Harrison said. “I honestly can’t believe it. It’s just so amazing to me.”

He joined Gilles Muller (Sydney) as a first-time winner on tour this year and is the first to make Memphis his inaugural ATP title since Joachim Johansson in 2004. Harrison also became the 14th American to win Memphis in the 41-year history of this indoor event and first since Andy Roddick in 2011.

With a Challenger title won in Dallas two weeks ago, Harrison is the first since David Goffin in 2014 to win a Challenger event and then an ATP title in back-to-back tournaments. He teamed with Steve Johnson in the doubles final after a quick turnaround and lost 6-3, 6-4 to American Brian Baker and Nikola Mektic of Croatia.

This was Basilashvili’s second career ATP final and first since Kitzbuehel last year. He knocked off top-seeded Ivo Karlovic in the second round. He upset Dominic Thiem, ranked eighth in the world, to reach the semifinals in Sofia last week. Basilashvili said he just didn’t have the energy to cover the court as he had in matches over the past two weeks.

Harrison handled Basilashvili’s powerful strokes by moving way back from the baseline, often playing shots a step behind the Memphis logo on either end of the court.

In the first set, Basilashvili had his best chance to break Harrison in the first game at 15-40. Basilashvili crashed to the court moving to his right on his first break point as Harrison pushed the game to deuce and held serve when Basilashvili put a backhand into the net. Harrison broke Basilashvili to go up 3-1 and again in the sixth game on his way to winning the set.

Basilashvili had a chance to break Harrison in each of the American’s five service games in the second set. Each time, Harrison fought back starting in the second game as the American served up an ace that just caught the line. He forced deuce where Basilashvili hit a forehand long to give the American the advantage, then Harrison served up his second ace to hold serve.

“Ryan played unbelievable on his break points,” Basilashvili said.

Harrison broke Basilashvili to go up 3-2, then fought back from 0-40 to force deuce and hold serve for a 4-2 lead. He had to battle back to force deuce in the eighth game and trailed again 15-40 in the final game. Harrison finished off the win with an ace to start celebrating.

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.