Serena consoles Australian Open foe; Halep next

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MELBOURNE, Australia — It was all a bit overwhelming for the latest opponent who could do nothing to slow Serena Williams at the Australian Open. So Dayana Yastremska, an 18-year-old from Ukraine, found herself wiping away tears as she walked to the net.

Williams knows what it’s like to be the one weeping after a loss. She put her right hand on Yastremska’s shoulder and consoled her by saying, “You’re so young. You did amazing. Don’t cry.” Then they embraced, and Williams patted Yastremska on the back.

“I could tell she was quite upset. I kind of liked that. It shows she wasn’t just there to play a good match – she was there to win. She wanted to win. That really broke my heart,” Williams said. “I think she’s a good talent. It’s good to see that attitude.”

Maybe she will be tested in the fourth round, because no one has come close to making her work too hard so far, including the 6-2, 6-1 victory on Saturday.

Next up, though, is a far more accomplished player, No. 1-ranked Simona Halep, who took control by reeling off six consecutive games in one stretch and advanced by beating Williams’ sister, Venus, 6-2, 6-3.

After two tough three-set tussles, Halep had a much easier time of things, making only 12 unforced errors while Venus had 33. Halep played with her left thigh taped, but moved around the court well.

“She played pretty flawless,” said Venus, who exits before the fourth round at a fifth consecutive Grand Slam tournament.

Looking ahead, Halep said: “It’s going to be a bigger challenge. I am ready to face it.”

She’s lost eight of her past nine matches against Serena.

Might Venus offer her sibling any tips?

“I don’t know if Serena needs my help or not,” Venus said. “If she does, I’ll be there.”

Not only has Serena won every set she played this week – and 20 in a row at Melbourne Park, dating to the start of her 2017 run to the title (she sat out last year’s tournament after having a baby) – but Williams has ceded a total of only nine games through three victories.

Unlike any of Serena’s foes until now, Halep has won a major title, last year’s French Open. She’s been to three other Grand Slam finals, including a year ago at the Australian Open.

That resume pales in comparison to Serena’s, of course.

Whose doesn’t?

She is bidding for an eighth trophy at the Australian Open and record-tying 24th Grand Slam title in all.

As for the prospect of playing the Williams sisters in back-to-back matches, Halep called it “the toughest draw I’ve ever had.”

“I just want to try to play my best tennis,” Halep said, “because I have nothing to lose.”

Other women’s fourth-rounders set up for Monday: Naomi Osaka, the woman who beat Serena in last year’s chaotic U.S. Open final, against No. 13 Anastasija Sevastova; 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys against No. 6 Elina Svitolina; and two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza against 2016 U.S. Open runner-up Karolina Pliskova, who beat No. 27 seed Camila Giorgi 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 on Saturday night.

Men’s matchups Monday with a quarterfinal berth at stake will be: No. 1 Novak Djokovic against No. 15 Daniil Medvedev; No. 4 Alexander Zverev against 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic; 2014 U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori against No. 23 Pablo Carreno-Busta; and No. 11 Borna Coric against No. 28 Lucas Pouille, who eliminated 19-year-old Australian wild-card entry Alexei Popyrin 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-7 (10), 4-6, 6-3.

Serena complimented Yastremska in the locker room after their match.

“She said, like, `You’re young, you’re very good and you will be a good player in the future.’ It’s nice to hear those words from a legend,” said the 57th-ranked Yastremska, who eliminated 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur in the first round and 23rd-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro in the second.

“If she thinks so,” Yastremska added about Williams, “then maybe that’s true.”

Williams grabbed a pair of service breaks and a 4-0 lead after less than 15 minutes and was well on her way to yet another easy-looking win.

Right from the start, Yastremska appeared a bit jittery, missing 9 of 10 first serves and double-faulting three times while getting broken in each of her opening two service games. By the end of the first set, the teenager had 13 unforced errors, nine more than Serena.

It didn’t get much better in the second set, and Serena wound up with eight aces while facing zero break points, and a 20-13 ratio of winners to unforced errors.

Yastremska was born in 2000, the year after Serena won her initial major, and grew up cheering for someone she calls “a legend.” Yastremska recalls swinging her racket in the living room at home while watching on TV at age 8 as her favorite player competed.

Surely, everything felt a tad different up-close-and-personal with the 37-year-old American in Rod Laver Arena.

What separates Williams from other top players?

“Everything. Small details. Her discipline. Her quality of the shots. How (committed) she is to every ball,” Yastremska said. “She (is) completely different. I don’t know how to describe that. It’s just there’s something special. What I’m trying to do is to go to the level that people are going to talk about me the same, that I have something special.”

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.