Yannick Noah taking no chances ahead of Davis Cup final

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PARIS — Laid-back in everyday life, Yannick Noah is meticulous when it comes to being a tennis coach.

So over the last 10 days, the France captain has been paying close attention to anything that could derail his team’s chances of winning an 11th Davis Cup title against Croatia this weekend.

“The most important thing was to spend as much time as possible together thinking about this final,” said Noah, who summoned his players for a demanding training camp in northern France about two weeks ahead of the final.

“We could have imagined a training camp in Paris. Once the day is over, everybody gets back home,” Noah said. “In fact, you lose your focus. Here, as soon as we woke up, we were in the final. When we started to run in the morning, it was still dark, but we were already in the final. During our meals, we thought about the final.”

Noah guided France to Davis Cup titles in 1991, 1996 and 2017, but he will step down after this weekend and Amelie Mauresmo will take over.

Since he returned to captain France in 2016, Noah has been rewarded with success. Despite a drop in individual performances, Noah’s players have reached the Davis Cup semifinals every year during his most recent stint, losing only once to Croatia in 2016. They won the title against Belgium last year and now have the chance to conquer the last final played in its traditional format. Beginning next year, the top team event in men’s tennis will be decided with a season-ending, 18-team tournament at a neutral site.

“We’ve got a unique chance, which will never happen again, to play a Davis Cup final at home,” Noah said. “We fought for this chance throughout the year. Not only for the team, but also for the event. Most of us have been obsessed by (this final). We want to make sure we are on top of all the things that can be controlled. Then there will be the craziness of the match.”

The Croats are favored to claim a second title after their team became the first unseeded nation to win the 2005 Davis Cup by defeating Slovakia.

While French players have been struggling individually over the last 12 months – Lucas Pouille is the best ranked Frenchman in Noah’s team at No. 32 – Croatia will be led by seventh-ranked Marin Cilic, who qualified for the ATP Finals this month after a consistent season. In singles, Cilic will be backed by No. 12 Borna Coric.

The final will be played on clay under the retractable roof of the Pierre Mauroy Stadium in Lille and Cilic might struggle to adapt to the slow surface, having competed on hard court last week in London.

“I will be ready,” Cilic said. “We had Davis Cup ties already on clay immediately after hard court tournaments. I believe I’m going to be fine, adjusting my play, a bit more of sliding, running. The conditions (on) indoor clay are slightly faster than outdoor clay. I will be fine.”

Pouille wrapped up France’s 10th Davis Cup title last year by winning the decisive point against Belgium in the final. In the absence of Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon, he will play in singles while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has been sidelined with a knee injury for most of the season, is likely to be used as France’s No. 2. Noah has also the option of fielding Jeremy Chardy.

In doubles, France has the better team with French Open champions Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who reached the final at the ATP Finals.

This year’s Davis Cup final has a familiar ring to it, at least for fans of soccer. France defeated Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup final in July.

Croatia captain Zeljko Krajan said his team did not receive any encouraging messages from the country’s soccer players but added “they will be happy if we (avenge) the World Cup final.”

Linette keeps getting better; into Australian Open semis

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Two days after advancing to her first Grand Slam tournament quarterfinal, unseeded Magda Linette went one better and is into the Australian Open semifinals.

The 30-year-old Linette beat Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 7-5, adding the former No. 1 to the list of top players she has beaten at Melbourne Park during this tournament.

Linette, who had lost seven of nine previous matches against Pliskova, had defeated Anett Kontaveit, Ekaterina Alexandrova and WTA Finals champion Caroline Garcia in successive rounds.

A player from Poland was favored to reach the latter stages of the tournament, but it was top-seeded Iga Swiatek that everyone would have expected – and not Linette.

“It’s so emotional I can’t really believe it,” Linette said. “I tried to stay composed and took my chances when I could.”

Linette will play No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka, who beat unseeded Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-2 in a later quarterfinal. The women’s semifinals are scheduled for Thursday night.

Vekic, who had 13 double faults against Sabalenka, had a succinct appraisal of her serve: “I mean, it was all over the place. But I think mostly in the net.”

The other women’s semifinalists were determined on Tuesday. Two-time former Australian champion Victoria Azarenka will play Wimbledon titleholder Elena Rybakina for a chance to play in Saturday night’s final. Rybakina beat Swiatek in the fourth round.

Later Wednesday, the remaining men’s semifinalists will be determined. Unseeded Americans Ben Shelton and Tommy Paul play before nine-time champion Novak Djokovic takes on Andrey Rublev.

Djokovic will be looking to qualify for his 44th Grand Slam semifinal and a win in that match on Friday would advance him on Sunday night to his 33rd major singles final.

The other men’s semifinal on Friday will see third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas play Karen Khachanov.

Rybakina rules in Australian Open quarterfinal vs. Ostapenko

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia – Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina advanced to the Australian Open semifinals with a 6-2, 6-4 win over former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

The match on Rod Laver Arena featured a rare rain delay of about 20 minutes while the roof was closed. Rybakina led 3-1 and was holding a break point before the delay. On return, Ostapenko saved the first break point, but Rybakina broke on her next opportunity to go up 4-1 and won the first set 6-2.

In the second set, Ostapenko was up a break but Rybakina leveled with a break of her own. It came on her first break point when Ostapenko had been unable to convert four in the previous game.

Rybakina, who beat top-seeded Iga Swiatek in the fourth round, set up match points with aces, both of which were saved by Ostapenko. But she clinched the match with another ace, her 11th of the match and a tournament-leading 35 overall.

“I was nervous in the last game, but I managed my emotions and played very well.” Rybakina said. “The conditions were different after the roof was closed. But it can happen here, you never know, on the morning one weather and later it changes.”

Rybakina will play the winner of the night quarterfinal between American Jessica Pegula, at No. 3 the highest women’s seed remaining, and two-time champion Victoria Azarenka.

In men’s quarterfinals, 22-year-old American Sebastian Korda played the next match at Rod Laver Arena against No. 18-seeded Karen Khachanov. In a night quarterfinal, third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas plays Jiri Lehecka. The winners of those matches will play each other in the semifinals on Friday.