Murray leads high-profile departures in Queens 1st round

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LONDON — Top-ranked Andy Murray headed a list of high-profile departures in the first round at Queen’s on Tuesday, with the Wimbledon champion losing to a player who found out he was competing only on the morning of the match.

Murray put in a sloppy and error-prone display in losing to 90th-ranked Jordan Thompson 7-6 (4), 6-2, joining Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic in getting eliminated on a day of shocks at the Wimbledon warmup event. They were the top three seeds.

Thompson, who lost in the final round of qualifying on Sunday, stepped up to play Murray following the withdrawal early Tuesday of Aljaz Bedene because of a wrist injury. Thompson played the match of his life – but was given a helping hand by the erratic Murray, the defending and five-time champion in west London.

The Australian sealed victory with an ace down the middle.

“Definitely the biggest win of my career,” Thompson said. “I took each point at a time. I definitely didn’t expect to be winning here in straight sets. I just wanted to enjoy myself.”

“Yesterday, I was sitting around, hoping to be able to get a game,” he added, “but there weren’t too many matches yesterday. I was always coming in, trying to sign in, and here I am in the draw. I’m so lucky.”

It is a blow to Murray’s preparation for Wimbledon, which starts on July 3.

The second-seeded Wawrinka was beaten by big-serving Feliciano Lopez 7-6 (5), 7-5, with the Spanish player sealing victory off a net cord from a sliced backhand return.

Wawrinka, the runner-up to Rafael Nadal at the French Open, appeared to be struggling with a left knee injury in the second set.

While Wawrinka’s exit wasn’t too much of a surprise, given Lopez’s recent form and liking for grass, the early departure of third-seeded Raonic in the first match on Centre Court certainly was.

Last year’s runner-up at Queen’s and Wimbledon – both times to Murray – lost 7-6 (5), 7-6 (8) to No. 698-ranked Thanasi Kokkinakis, who was playing only his sixth singles since November 2015 because of injury problems.

It was the first win over a top-10 opponent for the Australian, who trailed 6-3 in the second-set tiebreaker but won on his third match point with a backhand winner into the corner.

“It’s a big frustration,” said Raonic, who failed to convert any of his nine break-point opportunities. “Obviously it would have been a lot easier scheduling everything if I was to be here and have many more matches ahead of me.”

Kokkinakis played only one match in 2016 because of a shoulder problem, and missed most of this year because of an abdominal injury. He returned to action in May and played three events before Queen’s, with his ranking as low as No. 993 only last week.

“It’s everything. It’s huge for me,” Kokkinakis said. “I’ve been out for so long.”

French player Julien Benneteau advanced to the last 16 by beating Britain’s James Ward 6-2, 6-2.

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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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.