Federer in record 7th Aussie Open final after Chung retires

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) It took just over an hour for Roger Federer to fix one anomalous statistic in his extraordinary career.

Defending champion Federer, who was leading Hyeon Chung 6-1, 5-2 when the Korean retired in the second set of their Australian Open semifinal on Friday night, is within one win of a 20th Grand Slam singles title.

Going into the match against Chung, Federer had a below-par semifinals record at Melbourne Park, only six wins out of 13.

After 1 hour and 2 minutes under the closed roof on Rod Laver Arena, he’s on par, 7-7 (but still well below his marks at the other majors: 11-1 at Wimbledon, 7-3 at the U.S. Open, and 5-2 at Roland Garros).

It wasn’t how Federer expected to advance.

“You do take the faster matches whenever you can because there’s enough wear and tear on the body,” he said. “The thought process is not like `What would have been better?’

“That’s why this one feels bittersweet. I’m incredibly happy to be in the finals, but not like this.”

Chung tried everything to disguise the pain of the raw patches on his left foot which, his agent explained, were “blisters under blisters under blisters.”

Federer knows the feeling. He also sensed something wrong with Chung’s movement.

“I’ve played with blisters in the past a lot, and it hurts a lot. And at one point, it’s just too much and you can’t take it anymore – you can’t go on,” he said. “He’s played such a wonderful tournament, so credit to him for playing so hard again today.”

Federer’s conversation rate for finals in Australia is much better – the only time he lost a championship match was in 2009 against Rafael Nadal.

So he’s well poised for Sunday’s match against No. 6-seeded Marin Cilic. Cilic has had an extra day of rest but Federer was hardly taxed on Friday night, and occupied for only an hour.

The final will be Federer’s record seventh at the Australian Open and 30th at a Grand Slam.

Cilic was hampered by blisters when he lost to Federer in last year’s Wimbledon final, but he has made a relatively pain-free run through the other half of the draw, including a quarterfinal win over an injured Nadal.

Even if Chung had been fit, he was trying to reach his first ATP final against a player who has won 95 titles, 19 of them Grand Slams.

Chung had an incredible run at Melbourne Park, becoming the first Korean to reach a semifinal at a tennis major and attracting plenty of attention for beating No. 4-seeded Alexander Zverev in the third round and six-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic in the fourth.

But it took a toll. He needed a pain-killing injection before the match, and a medical timeout to re-tape his left foot after going down a break in the second set. He played only two more games before he quit.

“I did right thing. If I play bad on the court, it’s not good for the fans and audience as well,” he said. “I really hurt. I can’t walk no more.”

The 36-year-old Federer predicted a bright future for Chung, 15 years younger. Chung also believed the experience will prepare him better for the rigors of best-of-five-set tennis at Grand Slams.

“For sure. I play really good in (the) last two weeks. I make first round 16, quarters and semis – I play (Zverev), Novak, Roger,” he said. “I can play better and better in the future.”

With victory, Federer ensured one of the so-called Big Four – with Nadal, Djokovic, Andy Murray – has featured in the final since 2005. Stan Wawrinka’s win over Nadal in 2014 was the only final since 2008 that didn’t feature two of the Big Four.

Top-ranked Nadal lost to Cilic in the quarterfinals, Djokovic fell to Chung, and Murray, a five-time Australian Open runner-up, withdrew to have surgery on his hip, leaving their collective reputation for dominance in Australia on Federer.

He didn’t let anyone down in a clinical dismantling of the No. 58-ranked Chung, who won the Next Gen ATP Finals in November.

Earlier, Timea Babos of Hungary and Kristina Mladenovic of France became the first players from their respective countries to lift the Australian Open women’s doubles crown.

Babos and Mladenovic combined to beat the Russian pair of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 6-4, 6-3.

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.