US Open: Nadal-Anderson seems a mismatch, but upsets happen

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NEW YORK (AP) U.S. Open finalists Rafael Nadal and Kevin Anderson are both professional tennis players who were born in 1986. Not much else in common.

Heading into Sunday’s match – well, mismatch, apparently – Nadal owns 15 Grand Slam titles, including two at Flushing Meadows in 2010 and 2013. Anderson: zero.

Nadal has participated in 22 major finals. Anderson: zero.

Nadal has spent a total of more than 140 weeks at No. 1, his spot right now. Anderson: zero. Indeed, at No. 32, Anderson is the lowest-ranked U.S. Open finalist since the ATP began using computer rankings in 1973.

Of their previous tour-level matches, Nadal has won four. Anderson: zero.

Add it all up, and this much is certain: There are not a lot of reasons to expect Anderson to beat Nadal.

Sure, the 6-foot-8 (2.03-meter) Anderson, the tallest Grand Slam finalist in history, is equipped with a booming serve – he’s been broken only five times across 108 service games over the past two weeks – and so, in theory, the South African could make Nadal uncomfortable. Although even that seems unlikely, given that the 6-foot-1 (1.85-meter) Nadal is among the game’s top returners and has won 43 percent of his opponents’ service games in the tournament.

“He serves so well. Playing with tons of confidence and doing it very aggressively,” Nadal said about Anderson. “I will need to impose my tempo.”

Anderson’s coach, Neville Godwin, put forth the idea that his guy, only once before even so far as a quarterfinal in 33 previous appearances at majors, should be pressure-free Sunday.

“He’s completely free. He’s completely surpassed any expectations he may have had,” Godwin said. “So he’s got to release himself and just go and play.”

Yes, there is still a match to be contested, and three sets to be won, and an Anderson victory would not be the first time an unheralded tennis player managed to beat a presumably unbeatable one.

Here is a look at some of the sport’s biggest Grand Slam upsets, a list that includes Nadal’s name:

U.S. OPEN

– Roberta Vinci beats Serena Williams in the semifinals, 2015: Williams was bidding for the first calendar-year Grand Slam since 1988, but the 43rd-ranked Vinci won 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

– Juan Martin del Potro beats Nadal in the semifinals, then Roger Federer in the final , 2009: del Potro was 20 and managed to first wallop Nadal 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, then end Federer’s 40-match, five-title winning streak at Flushing Meadows in a five-set comeback.

WIMBLEDON

– George Bastl beats Pete Sampras in the second round, 2002: Sampras was a seven-time Wimbledon champion. Bastl was ranked 145th and a “lucky loser,” someone who was eliminated in qualifying but got into the main draw because someone withdrew.

– Richard Krajicek beats Sampras in the quarterfinals, 1996: The only match Sampras lost at the All England Club from the start of the 1993 tournament to the end of the 2000 tournament.

– Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis , Nick Kyrgios, Dustin Brown beat Nadal at Wimbledon, 2012-15: Each of those opponents was ranked outside the top 100 when they stunned Nadal, a two-time champion at Wimbledon.

– Sergiy Stakhovsky beats Roger Federer in the second round, 2013: Federer’s earliest Grand Slam exit in a decade, ending a run of 36 consecutive quarterfinal appearances at majors. Stakhovsky was ranked 116th.

– Ivo Karlovic beats Lleyton Hewitt in the first round, 2003: Hewitt became the first men’s defending champion in the professional era, which began in 1968, to bow out in the first round at the All England Club.

– Lori McNeil beats Steffi Graf in the first round, 1994: Graf became the first women’s defending champion to lose her opener.

FRENCH OPEN

– Virginie Razzano beats Williams in the first round, 2012: The 111th-ranked Razzano’s stunning win remains Williams’ lone first-round exit in 66 Grand Slam tournaments.

– Robin Soderling beats Nadal in the fourth round, 2009: Nadal was 31-0 with four consecutive titles at Roland Garros (a total he has since raised to 10). Soderling had never won even a third-round match at a major before that tournament.

– Michael Chang beats Ivan Lendl in the fourth round, then Stefan Edberg in the final, 1989: Chang was 17 and remains the youngest man to win a Grand Slam title.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN

– Mark Edmonson beats John Newcombe in the final, 1976: Newcombe was the defending champion and Edmonson was ranked 212th. He remains the lowest-ranked man to win a Grand Slam title.

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.