Juan Martin del Potro advances to Wimbledon quarters for first time since 2013

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LONDON — Juan Martin del Potro faces some major challenges if he’s going to go any further at Wimbledon after reaching consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals for the first time since 2012.

First, on Wednesday he’ll take to the court for a third consecutive day amid concerns over his fitness. Second, his opponent will be two-time Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal.

2009 U.S. Open champion Del Potro defeated Gilles Simon 7-6 (1), 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (5) in a match that was carried over to Tuesday to complete the men’s quarterfinal lineup at the All England Club.

The other matchups see defending champion Roger Federer against Kevin Anderson; Novak Djokovic takes on Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic meets John Isner in a matchup of big servers.

After reaching the French Open semifinals last month, Del Potro — who has missed long periods with a career-threatening left wrist injury — returned to his career-high ranking of No. 4 for the first time since February 2014, which he acknowledges is a “good signal”.

“I don’t know if I’m better or not, a better player than few years ago,” said Del Potro, after returning to the last eight at Wimbledon for the first time since 2013. “I’m doing a good season already. I’m very proud to be in the last eight players of this tournament”

Del Potro’s Roland Garros run was ended by eventual champion Nadal. If the Argentine is to make it back-to-back last four appearances, he will need to reverse that result on Wednesday.

“If I want to beat him (Nadal),” Del Potro said. “I have to come to the net very often and play hard with my forehands, with my backhands, and try to take all the chances.”

With the fifth-seeded Del Potro’s fourth-round match — the longest men’s singles contest of the tournament so far — having required to be finished Tuesday, he will be taking to the court for a third consecutive day.

Given the fact he withdrew from a pre-Wimbledon event with a groin concern and called the trainer during his match with Simon, Del Potro’s fitness could be a factor.

“I think I will be in good condition.” Del Potro said. “My body feels OK.”

There is little doubt that Nadal — who is playing in the Wimbledon quarterfinals for the first time since 2011 — will provide a big test.

Before Del Potro and Nadal arrive on Centre Court, three-time champion Novak Djokovic, will get the chance he’s been waiting for.

Having played three of his matches away from Centre Court, Djokovic asked after his fourth-round win over Karen Khachanov that his meeting with 24th-seeded Nishikori be played in the main stadium.

His wish was granted, meaning that top-seeded Federer will play away from Centre Court for the first time in three years.

The more gusty conditions on No. 1 Court could make Federer’s challenge against eighth-seeded Kevin Anderson more complicated.

Stretching back to last year, Federer has won 32 consecutive sets at Wimbledon and will break his previous longest streak of 34 if he wins in straight sets.

Following Federer on No. 1 Court will be the two biggest servers remaining in the tournament.

Ninth-seeded Isner has hit a tournament-high 135 aces on his way to reaching his first Wimbledon quarterfinal. Next in the aces column is his opponent, 2016 runner-up Raonic.

The 13th-seeded Raonic has hit 117 aces en route to his fourth last-eight showing at the All England Club.

Both players said the match is likely to come down to a few crucial points, but took different tones when asked to suggest where they might have an advantage.

“I think I can move a little bit better than he can,” Raonic said.

Isner’s retort: “I’m taller than him. That’s all I got for you right now.”

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.