Serena wins Cincinnati opener against Gavrilova

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MASON, Ohio (AP) Serena Williams bounced back from the most lopsided loss of her career, cruising past Darla Gavrilova 6-1, 6-2 at the Western & Southern Open on Monday.

Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam winner and a former champion in Cincinnati, needed just 65 minutes to dispatch Gavrilova. She’ll face eighth-seeded Petra Kvitova in Tuesday’s second round.

Williams lost to Johanna Konta 6-1, 6-0 in San Jose, California, before withdrawing from last week’s Rogers Cup in Montreal.

Earlier Monday, Andy Murray lost to Lucas Pouille 6-1, 1-6, 6-4, clearing another obstacle for Roger Federer in this U.S. Open tuneup.

Top-seeded Rafael Nadal dropped out Sunday night to prepare for the U.S. Open after winning his fifth title of the year in Toronto.

Murray had his best result since missing 11 months following hip surgery when he reached the quarterfinals in Washington two weeks ago. But he had a hard time adjusting to the Cincinnati courts.

“The start of the match was not good,” he said. “It was a pretty bad first set. After that, it was a little better.”

Federer, seeded second, has won in Cincinnati a record seven times but hasn’t played here since winning in 2015. In 2016, he had a knee injury, and in 2017 he had back problems.

“Cincinnati has always been a good tournament for me,” said Federer, the reigning Australian Open champion. “I was sad not to play here last year, and two years ago there wasn’t a chance. I’m glad to be back.”

Even with the top-ranked Nadal missing, Federer liked the strength of this field, especially with Murray and Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic having recovered from injuries.

“That’s why you have such a good, exciting draw,” Federer said before Murray’s match was over. “It’s a pity Rafa isn’t playing. He would have added massively to that part of the draw.”

Grigor Dmitrov, the defending champion who is seeded fifth, was not entirely upset about Nadal’s absence.

“When Rafa is missing, he’s missed, not so much by the players as much as the fans,” he said. “All joking aside, I love spending time with Rafa and practicing with him and playing with him. I would be the last person to say I wouldn’t want to play with him.”

Monday’s first full day of main-draw competition opened with 13th-seeded Madison Keys holding off Bethanie Mattek-Sands 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4 to reach the second round. Wild-card Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, also came from behind to beat Carla Suarez Navarro 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4.

Tenth-seeded Julia Goerges was losing to Kristina Mladenovic 6-4, 3-2 when she retired because of a lower left leg injury. Advancing were qualifier Ajia Tomjanovic, Aryna Sabalenka, Lesia Tsurenko, wild card Svetlana Kuznetsova, qualifier Viktoria Kuzmova and Anett Kontaveit.

On the men’s side, Sam Querrey ground out a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5) win over fellow American and ninth-seeded John Isner. Querrey gained an edge with a mini-break on the fifth point of the second tiebreaker when Isner sailed a forehand wide of the backhand sideline. Querry closed out the 2-hour, 7-minute match with an ace that survived a challenge by Isner.

Kei Nishikori beat Andrey Rublev 7-5, 6-3, and 13th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta topped Richard Gasquet 6-3, 2-6, 6-3. Other winners were Leonardo Mayer, Jeremy Chardy, Benoit Paire, Peter Gojowczyk, Denis Shapovalov and qualifier Bradley Klahn.

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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.