Helped by key double-fault, Murray tops del Potro in Paris

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PARIS — Andy Murray benefited from a double-fault by Juan Martin del Potro in the opening tiebreaker and then looked more and more like the No. 1 player that he is during a 7-6 (8), 7-5, 6-0 victory at the French Open on Saturday.

The third-round match between a pair of past major champions was much tighter than the straight-set scoreline might indicate.

“Yeah, I expected a very tough match. And the first set was very, very important, I think, for the rest of the match. Whoever had won that first set had big momentum,” Murray said. “In these conditions, when it’s slow and heavy, to be coming back is difficult.”

He needed nearly 3 hours to get past the 29th-seeded del Potro at Court Philippe Chatrier under a cloud-filled sky. It was a rematch of the 2016 Rio Olympics gold-medal final won by Murray.

Del Potro had four set points in the opening set but lost each one, including that key double-fault while ahead 7-6 in the tiebreaker. After Murray converted a third set point of his own when his opponent’s big forehand landed barely wide, del Potro rested his head on the net and stayed put for several seconds, the very picture of disappointment.

“Too much frustration,” del Potro said. “I couldn’t believe I lost that set.”

Murray is a three-time Grand Slam title winner and was the runner-up at Roland Garros a year ago. He has not had a great season so far, though, particularly on the clay-court circuit leading up to the French Open, but he now has reached the fourth round for the eighth time in 10 appearances in Paris.

“I’m starting to feel better. I was really looking forward to the French Open,” Murray said. “I had struggled the last six or seven weeks coming in.”

Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, was playing at his first French Open since 2012 because of a series of operations on his left wrist. Under constant pressure from an aggressive foe, del Potro had some trouble from Murray’s drop shots and wound up making far more unforced errors, 43-28.

Also on Day 7, 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic beat Feliciano Lopez 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, and next meets big-serving Kevin Anderson, who edged Kyle Edmund 6-7 (6), 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-1, 6-4. Fernando Verdasco easily got past No. 22 Pablo Cuevas 6-2, 6-1, 6-3.

Victories by Alize Cornet and Caroline Garcia gave France three women in the fourth round of this tournament for the first time since 1994. Kristina Mladenovic advanced to that round by winning Friday.

The unseeded Cornet was a surprisingly easy winner against No. 9 Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, 6-2, 6-1, while No. 28 Garcia edged Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan 6-4, 4-6, 9-7.

France, which last put a trio of women into the final 16 at any major at the 2008 U.S. Open, is guaranteed at least one quarterfinalist this time, because Garcia now meets Cornet.

“I think the crowd is going to be excited,” Cornet said. “We will try to give them a good show, a good game. The crowd support is like a bonus, an extra energy.”

Simona Halep, the 2014 runner-up, said the torn ligament in her right ankle is no longer an issue and proved that by defeating 26th-seeded Daria Kasatkina of Russia 6-0, 7-5.

“Well, now, it’s pretty OK,” Halep said about her ankle. “I can run. I can slide everywhere. I can move pretty well.”

In other third-round action, former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki beat 18-year-old CiCi Bellis of California 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 in a match suspended late in the second set Friday night; and No. 21 Carla Suarez Navarro eliminated No. 14 Elena Vesnina 6-4, 6-4.

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.