Australian Open: New rule nixes never-ending final sets

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Andy Roddick knows a thing or two about playing a tennis match that just won’t seem to end.

The Hall of Famer once won an Australian Open quarterfinal that ended 21-19 in the fifth set. He also lost a Wimbledon final against Roger Federer that went to 16-14 in the fifth set, a 2009 epic that Roddick says was “definitely the one I hear about the most and talk about the most and kind of think about the most.”

Those types of final sets are on the way out at Melbourne Park and the All England Club. The Australian Open and Wimbledon are finally doing what the U.S. Open started doing decades ago: putting an end to final sets before they get out of hand.

While some fans, and even players, might still like the idea that a match could go on and on and on forever – or seemingly forever – count Roddick among those who are just fine with the switch. One outcome is that each of the four Grand Slam tournaments now will resolve their lengthiest matches in a unique way, with the Australian Open – which begins Monday in Melbourne – the only one opting for a first-to-10, win-by-two tiebreaker at 6-all in a men’s fifth set or a women’s third set.

“You look back and everyone remembers those matches fondly, so I’m a little bit torn, but as a consumer of the sport, you have to know, at least within a semblance of a couple hours, how you’d even get through your day if you want to watch tennis,” Roddick said.

“Tennis is becoming more and more and more physical,” the 2003 U.S. Open champion said, “so I’ll miss the long matches, but I think it’s a positive change.”

Already a subject of debate after John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut in a 70-68 fifth set at Wimbledon in 2010, the issue reached a tipping point at the same tournament last year. Isner lost to Kevin Anderson in a 26-24 fifth set in the semifinals, pushing the conclusion of Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal into the following day and leaving Anderson compromised for the final.

“What John and Kevin did was amazing, but it was also impossible for a viewer to watch. … It put the tournament into a real tough spot with Novak and Rafa not being able to finish that day,” Roddick said. “It causes a whole lot of problems.”

Not surprisingly, Isner and Anderson both appreciated the adjustment.

“If they could name it, they probably would name it after me,” Isner joked about the new rule at Wimbledon, which calls for a first-to-seven, win-by-two traditional tiebreaker if a final set reaches 12-all, instead of the standard 6-all. “I personally do think it’s the right call. Chances are, it will not come into play next year for me – we do know it’s a possibility – or for anyone else. … When that does happen, I think it’ll be interesting to see how fans react.”

Also worth watching is how the differences in each major’s setups are viewed.

The U.S. Open is sticking with its first-to-seven, win-by-two tiebreaker at 6-all, which was introduced in the 1970s.

The French Open, meanwhile, is now the only Grand Slam tournament to continue to eschew final-set tiebreakers entirely and make players continue to compete until someone wins by two games.

“Ultimately, it’s a balancing act between elevating the uniqueness of each event, versus compromising on the uniformity of rules and potential clarity for fans,” ATP Chief Executive Chris Kermode said.

His counterpart at the WTA, CEO Steve Simon, would prefer more consistency across the Slams, but he likes the idea of reducing final sets, because, “I don’t think that matches that go extraordinarily long are healthy for the sport.”

The old setup at the Australian Open and Wimbledon created problems for athletes, without a doubt. And some spectators, whether in the stadium or at home on a couch, surely wished they could have fast-forwarded to the finish.

Simon is among those who think there still will be room for plenty of drama.

“For the fans, they’ve already watched five hours of tennis, so they don’t want to sit through another, potentially, hour or two hours. They want to see an ending. And they want it to be exciting, you know?” said Denis Shapovalov, a 19-year-old Canadian seeded 25th in Melbourne. “When you saw Isner and Anderson, I just felt awful for them. It’s not even tennis anymore. It’s just who can survive the longest. And even if they win, the next round, there’s no chance.”

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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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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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.