Fendrich on Tennis: Nadal, Federer back at the top in 2017

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NEW YORK (AP) Who would have guessed at the start of 2017 that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer would divvy up the year’s four Grand Slam titles?

And who could possibly pretend to know what 2018 will bring for them?

By the time Nadal was biting the handle of the U.S. Open trophy on Sunday night , his usual way of celebrating a tournament victory, he had raised his career Grand Slam championship count to 16: three at Flushing Meadows, an unprecedented 10 at the French Open (including this June, shortly after turning 31), two at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open.

That moved him back within three of Federer, whose 19 is the record among men: an unprecedented eight at the All England Club (including in July, shortly before turning 36), five at the U.S. Open, four at the Australian Open (including in January) and one at Roland Garros.

“Of course, (it’s) something difficult to imagine, eight months ago or nine months ago, that we will be winning two Grand Slams each,” Nadal said. “But here we are.”

Indeed, in January, it sure appeared that the two greats of the game had left their best days behind.

As of Monday, they are ranked 1-2 .

Federer began this season at No. 16, having missed the last half while letting his back and left knee heal.

Nadal was No. 9, having pulled out after the second round of the French Open and skipped Wimbledon entirely because of an injured left wrist.

“When you get (an) injury,” Nadal said, “then (it) seems like the season is a disaster.”

Federer began 2017 having gone 4+ years without a Grand Slam title.

Nadal’s drought without so much as one appearance in a major semifinal had stretched to about 2+ years.

By the end of the Australian Open, though, they were squaring off to decide the title.

It was the pair’s ninth Grand Slam final against each other – it’s happened at least twice at each major except the U.S. Open, where they have never met – but first since the 2011 French Open.

At the time, Nadal said Sunday, “I was surprised.”

But he wasn’t taken aback by what he and Federer were able to do later in the year. It was clear – to Nadal, to everyone – that they were once again capable of being the dominant figures in their sport.

“To come back and win all four Grand Slams was quite an achievement, regardless of how good they are. There is a lot of very tough competition,” said Kevin Anderson, the first-time major finalist who failed to put up too much of a fight in a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 loss to the No. 1-ranked Nadal.

“When they’re healthy, I think they have so many skills they can rely on. In addition to that is just the amount of experience they have had,” Anderson said. “Playing at this level, I think they feel very comfortable, and obviously they might get nervous, but just like anything, the more you do it, the more used to it you get.”

It didn’t hurt that the three men who are next in the pecking order all had down years and injury issues: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. All missed the U.S. Open. All could return to contention for big prizes next year.

Add in that trio’s major totals (Djokovic has 12, Murray and Wawrinka three apiece), and since the start of the 2005 French Open, the top five men have won 49 of the past 51 Grand Slam championships.

Still, after all this time, there are still two who stand alone at the top: Rafa and Roger.

“There is just two things that probably we share – that is passion for what we are doing, passion for tennis , passion for the competition,” Nadal said, “and the spirit of improvement all the time.”

The question was put to him Sunday night: How important is it for you to catch Federer in the race for most Grand Slam titles?

“I really never thought much about that. I just do my way. He does his way,” Nadal responded. “Let’s see when we finish, no?”

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

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.