Nadal withdraws; Isner beats del Potro in Paris

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PARIS (AP) John Isner stayed on track for the last spot at the ATP Finals by beating Juan Martin del Potro 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 in the Paris Masters quarterfinals on Friday.

The American was the runner-up last year and needs to win the tournament to reach the finals in London this month.

“I’ve given myself a pretty good shot to qualify,” Isner said. “But it’s going to be very tough.”

Meanwhile, top-ranked Rafael Nadal pulled out with a right knee injury, and hopes to be fit to lead the London field.

The loss ended del Potro’s hopes of reaching London. The Argentine needed to win to guarantee his place.

“I’m exhausted. But I did all my effort, I don’t have anything to (reproach) myself (for),” del Potro said. “I’ve been playing three sets today without legs, without energy. Now it’s time to get home and enjoy the vacation.”

The eighth and last berth for London is between Isner and Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain, who is ahead of Isner in the race.

Isner, who played with strapping above his left knee, broke for 2-1 in the third set. With an unreturnable serve on his first match point, Isner topped del Potro for only the third time in nine matches.

Isner will next face Serbian qualifier Filip Krajinovic, who advanced when Nadal withdrew.

“This week he’s played with a lot of energy,” said Isner, who has been refueling with a rare treat. “After a match like this, any calories are pretty good. I actually had a cheeseburger. I had one yesterday, too. And they cook a good one here.”

Nadal signaled his knee wasn’t right during his third-round win over Pablo Cuevas on Thursday.

“I’m going to do my treatment, do my best to be playing in London,” he said. “But I cannot talk about that now; it is tough enough for me to pull out from here.”

Tournament director Guy Forget praised Nadal for his attitude in trying his hardest to play, despite his evident pain.

“We all know Rafa, once he says he’s going to do something he sticks to it,” Forget said. “He said `I’m sorry’ to me 10 times, like a kid who’s done something wrong. I said, `No, no, I’m sorry for you.”‘

Krajinovic, a qualifier ranked 77, is through to his first Masters semifinal, and the first qualifier to reach the semis since Jerzy Janowicz in 2012.

“My goal this year was to play challengers to pick up points for next year,” he said. “I was already top 100 two or three years ago; then I had bad luck with injuries.”

Krajinovic said his progress was stalled by “an extra bone in the wrist” that needed to be treated.

Unseeded Julien Benneteau continued his unexpected march by knocking out third-seeded Marin Cilic 7-6 (5), 7-5.

Benneteau lost their three previous matches but edged a first set where both dropped serve twice.

He sealed victory on his first match point on Cilic’s serve with a cross-court forehand winner and became emotional, dropping his racket, blowing kisses, and tearing up.

“I was looking at my brother, who is my coach, and at my wife. I am so happy to make her proud,” he said. “It’s an indescribable joy.”

In his last Paris Masters before retiring, the Frenchman has a shot at a first career title on home court.

He plays the winner of the last quarterfinal between Fernando Verdasco and Jack Sock.

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.