Czechs beat defending champion U.S. in Fed Cup final

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PRAGUE — Six finals, six victories.

The Czech Republic kept its perfect record in the Fed Cup finals by capturing the trophy for the sixth time in eight years by defeating the defending champion United States.

Katerina Siniakova saved two match points before defeating Sofia Kenin 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 in the first reverse singles on Sunday to give the Czechs an insurmountable 3-0 lead over defending champion United States in the best-of-five final.

It was the first victory for the Czechs over the United States – since the country was created after the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993 – after four defeats in the Fed Cup.

The Czechoslovakia team that won five Fed Cup titles was 2-6 against the U.S.

“It was an unbelievable match for me,” Siniakova said. “It was up and down, with nerves. I’m extremely happy that I won. I thank all who came for their support. It was felt.”

U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi said she was proud of her team despite the loss.

“We didn’t get the result that we wanted but nobody can say we didn’t give all out there,” Rinaldi said after her first loss as the captain.

“That match today, both girls, both players were incredible,” she said. “I’m so honored to have been part of that match, they really fought hard, the points were incredible, it’s just something I never forget.”

In a hard-fought match at the O2 Arena, the 22-year-old Czech saved two match points when Kenin was serving at 5-4, and went on to convert her second match point on the indoor hardcourt in front of 14,500 fans.

“It was a long match, a lot of points, a lot of effort, long points,” Kenin said. “We fought hard till the end. It’s disappointing for me `cause I had like two match points but couldn’t turn things around. But I fought my hardest and I did everything I could.”

Siniakova wasted a 3-0 lead in the final set and the 19-year-old Kenin, who was playing her second match in her debut Fed Cup tie, fought back.

Kenin, who wasted three break points at 5-5, hit 43 winners but also made 76 unforced errors. Siniakova hit 24 winners.

“It was horrible, the worst (moment),” Siniakova said about the match points she faced. “But it’s not the end until the final match point is converted.”

At 3-0 down in the third set, Kenin needed treatment for what seemed to be a thigh muscle problem. The treatment was then repeated several times.

“It was obviously painful for me and I felt like it was just hard for me to move,” Kenin said.

Trailing 3-1, the American wasted five break points in a game that took 19 minutes.

On Saturday, Barbora Strycova rallied for a 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-4 victory over Kenin to put the Czechs 1-0 ahead and Siniakova doubled the advantage with a 6-3, 7-6 (2) win over Alison Riske.

The U.S. is the most successful country in the international team competition and won its 18th Fed Cup title last year with Rinaldi in her first season as the captain. The U.S. had not previously won the Fed Cup since 2000.

On the way to the final, the Czechs beat Switzerland 3-1 in the first round and Germany 4-1 in the semifinals.

The final was marred by the absence of top players.

Siniakova was the highest ranked at No. 31.

After four of the top five U.S. women in the WTA singles rankings – the Williams sisters, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys – decided to skip it, three players on the team made their Fed Cup debuts.

The Czechs are weakened, too, missing their two top-10 players. Karolina Pliskova was ruled out due to injuries and Petra Kvitova due to illness.

International Tennis Federation President David Haggerty said in Prague the ITF would like to have more top players in the competition in general.

“One of the concepts is to do something similar to what we’ve done with the Davis Cup. Nothing is determined (yet),” he said.

Haggerty said the ITF would like to expand the Fed Cup World Group to 16 teams from the current eight because “some of the top players are on the teams that are maybe nine through 16.”

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.