Krajinovic upsets Isner to reach Paris Masters final

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PARIS (AP) Qualifier Filip Krajinovic reached the Paris Masters final after an upset 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5) win against ninth-seeded John Isner on Saturday.

The 25-year-old Serb slid onto his back and sobbed, his arms raised, after sealing victory on his first match point. Krajinovic then knelt and kissed the court.

“The emotions are amazing, big. When I served for the match my hand was shaking,” Krajinovic said. “It was tough to control the emotions. Best day in my life but the tournament is not over yet.”

He will play for his first career title against 16th-seeded American Jack Sock, who comfortably beat home favorite Julien Benneteau 7-5, 6-2. Sock has never won a Masters title and can qualify for the season-ending ATP Finals London if he does so here.

Sock dropped his serve twice but broke the 35-year-old Benneteau’s serve five times. The 25-year-old American will go for his third title of the year and fourth of his career.

For big-serving Isner, the defeat ended his bid to reach London.

“Very disappointing. I had an opportunity here to do some things I’ve never done before,” said Isner, who was also hoping to break into the Top 10.

Isner was a runner-up in Paris last year and again fell short of an elusive first Masters title.

“I have been very close in tournaments, especially Masters events. I just haven’t broken through,” he said. “This one is going to sting because I knew I was the highest-ranked player in the semifinals.”

Krajinovic is the lowest-ranked player in a Masters final since 191st-ranked Andrei Pavel in Paris in 2003.

The 77th-ranked Krajinovic had only won 17 matches in his whole career – thwarted by a wrist injury – before this tournament.

Krajinovic, who looked fresher on court than Isner, is the first qualifier to reach a Masters final since Jerzy Janowicz in 2012, also in Paris.

Krajinovic was helped by not having to play his quarterfinal because top-ranked Rafael Nadal pulled out with a right knee injury. Nadal has not said whether he will be fit enough to play in the season-ending ATP Finals, starting Nov. 12 in London.

Serving for the first set, Krajinovic held to love when Isner sent a two-handed backhand into the net.

With Isner serving at 4-4 and 40-30 in the ninth game of the second set, the match was halted for six minutes when several medical staff attended to a female spectator, who was then taken away. She appeared fully conscious and had her eyes open.

Isner dominated the second-set tiebreaker and clenched his fist after leveling the match with an ace.

The 32-year-old Isner forged a break point at the start of the third set, but missed it with a wasteful forehand which went long.

A powerful forehand gave Isner another chance on Krajinovic’s serve at 30-40 in the ninth game, but Krajinovic saved that one, too.

“I actually went after it and I missed the ball by a few inches,” Isner said. “With how well I was serving today, that was essentially a match point.”

In a tense decisive tiebreaker, Isner led 3-0 but Krajinovic rallied to move 5-4 ahead. Isner’s 31st ace steadied him but a superb return to Isner’s feet on the next point gave Krajinovic match point on his serve.

“When I was up 3-0 I was actually feeling very good,” Isner said. “But he hit two unreturnable serves.”

A whipped forehand winner into an open side of the court was enough for victory, prompting wild celebrations from Krajinovic’s coach, Petar Popovic, who was topless as he shook his fists in delight.

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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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.