U.S. Open champ Osaka into quarters at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka was a set down again at the Australian Open and looking for a bit of inspiration.

She thought of how 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas had stunned 20-time major winner Roger Federer and how Frances Tiafoe has advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time. This helped her pull herself together Monday to reach the last eight, too.

No. 4-seeded Osaka had a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 fourth-round win over No. 13-seeded Anastasija Sevastova to reach the last eight at a major for the second time. She’ll next play sixth-seeded Elina Svitolina, who fended off five break points in a game in the third set that went to deuce 11 times, contained 28 points, and was pivotal in a momentum-swinging 6-2, 1-6, 6-1 win over 2017 U.S. Open finalist Madison Keys.

“I wasn’t really sure what to do at a point. I just try to stick in there,” Osaka said. “And also I was watching all these kids winning, like, last night Tsitsipas beat Federer and I was like, `Woah’ – so I decided I wanted to do well, too.

“I think that’s everyone’s dream,” she added.

In her third-round win over Hsieh Su-wei, the 21-year-old Osaka got a warning from the umpire for spiking her racket after losing the first set. She was down a break in the second set, too

Against Sevastova, “I was thinking I’ve been in this position before and actually last time it was a little bit worse,” Osaka said.

Another win now and there’s potential for Osaka to have a rematch of the U.S. Open final against Serena Williams. The eight-time Australian Open champion Williams was playing top-ranked Simona Halep later Monday in the fourth round.

But Osaka knows there’ll be no easy ride against Svitolina.

Coming off a win at the WTA Finals, Svitolina is aiming to do what Caroline Wozniacki did last year and follow up a title at the season-ending championship with a breakthrough major in Australia.

For a quarter of an hour on Day 8, Svitolina served and served, and served, tossing the ball into the sun, in a desperate bid to hold a game in the third set against Keys.

After that huge hold, she broke the 17th-seeded Keys’s serve in at her first opportunity in the next game, and it was all one-way from then on.

“I was happy I could handle the pressure at 1-1 in the third set,” Svitolina said. “It was very hard because the sun was just burning my eyes when I was tossing the ball. Very happy I could win that game.”

“The Singapore week showed that I can be out there and winning tough matches … big matches,” she said. “I know that I can challenge good players and I can win.

She’s taking an 0-3 record in Grand Slam quarterfinals into her next match against Osaka, but is taking a different mindset into the match.

Winning in Singapore “gave me huge boost of confidence, so I don’t think about the past anymore,” she said. “I only look forward.”

Apart from the second set, Keys didn’t quite find her range with her ground strokes and 34 unforced errors.

She dropped her first two service games in the match, and she missed very narrowly on some crucial points.

“I think that in the third set we obviously had a really long game at 1-All, and that was where all the momentum swung,” Keys said. “For me to get broken easily right after, I think I lost all the momentum that I had in the second set. It feels like it went really fast.”

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.