Serena Williams won’t play Fed Cup Saturday singles matches

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) Serena Williams’ return to competitive tennis will have to wait one more day.

Williams won’t be playing in either of Saturday’s Fed Cup singles matches as she makes her comeback five months after becoming a mother. Williams teams up with Lauren Davis to face Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands in Sunday’s doubles match.

“It’s definitely the start of a long process,” Williams said. “Physically, I feel good. Every day, I get better and I get stronger. That’s just something I always keep telling myself every day, I have to get better.”

Williams, 36, hasn’t played an official match since winning the 2017 Australian Open. Williams later revealed she was pregnant during that tournament.

Although Williams isn’t scheduled to play any singles matches this weekend, that could change. U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi has the right to change her Sunday lineup after Saturday’s play.

“We’ll wait and see how tomorrow goes and then we’ll make our adjustments, if any,” Rinaldi said Friday.

The U.S. will have Venus Williams take on Arantxa Rus and CoCo Vandeweghe will face Richel Hogerkamp on Saturday as it opens its Fed Cup title defense. Sunday’s scheduled singles matches have Venus Williams facing Hogerkamp and Vandeweghe taking on Rus.

But this weekend’s headline is the return of Serena Williams, who participated in a Dec. 30 exhibition match but otherwise hasn’t played since that 2017 Australian Open.

Williams said Friday she’s unsure about how she will manage her schedule and whether she will play all three remaining Grand Slam events this year. Williams’ 23 Grand Slam singles titles put her one behind the record held by Margaret Court.

“I have long-term goals obviously, but right now my main goal is just to stay in the moment,” Williams said. “It goes unsaid (that) 25 is obviously something that I would love, but I’d hate to limit myself.”

Williams’ daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., was born Sept. 1. Williams who is married to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, said motherhood is “an amazing journey.”

“It’s probably been the most fun of my life,” she said. “It’s a totally new experience. I love motherhood, and I look forward to just being the best mom I can be.”

Williams said she has benefited from having her sister alongside her as she attempts this comeback.

“She’s been really, really positive,” Williams said. “There (are) moments that have just been hard, just getting back out there and doing it every day. You have to get used to that and get in the rhythm of that. I’ve been able to really rely on her for that.”

Venus Williams has been impressed with her younger sister’s parenting skills.

“I think she’s the best mother I ever saw,” Venus Williams said. “She’s amazing. She does everything herself.”

Venus Williams was asked how motherhood had changed her sister.

“She might go out a little less,” Venus said before breaking into a grin. “But she’s definitely remained just very youthful and childlike at heart. I think sometimes motherhood changes people in a way that they become less young and more serious, but that hasn’t affected her.”

Serena Williams acknowledged there have been “a lot of ups and downs” in her comeback as she mentioned “fighting against all odds to be out there and to be competing again.”

She mentioned there are “moments that have just been hard, getting back out there doing it every day.” Williams had told Vogue magazine that she developed several small blood clots in her lungs after her daughter was born.

Williams had opted against trying to defend her Australian Open title this year.

“I think she’s smart to take her time and not to play Australia,” ESPN analyst and 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Chris Evert said last week. “Playing Fed Cup and easing her way back with exhibitions. Maybe she wants to peak for Wimbledon, that would be her best chance at a Grand Slam.”

Williams said the Fed Cup represents an ideal setting for her return. Not only does it allow her to practice alongside a few different players, it also enables her coach and teammates to offer different perspectives on her progress.

“It actually is a really perfect opportunity to try to come back,” Williams said.

AP Sports Writer Melissa Murphy contributed to this report.

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

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.