Djokovic eyes French Open final against Nadal

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MONACO — As Novak Djokovic begins his preparations for a fourth straight Grand Slam title, he likes to imagine beating Rafael Nadal in the French Open final.

“That would be the match of the season, yes,” Djokovic said Sunday at the Monte Carlo Masters. Djokovic and his longtime rival Nadal are starting their clay-court seasons this week at Monte Carlo, their first tuneup on clay ahead of the May 26-June 9 French Open in Paris, and which could see them meet for a 54th time if they reach the final.

Toppling Nadal at Roland Garros, where the Spaniard is the defending champion and a record 11-time winner, is what Djokovic really wants.

It’s something Djokovic considers “one of the ultimate challenges of the sport” – much like facing Roger Federer during his grass-court prime at Wimbledon. They are the three most successful players in Grand Slam history: Federer has won a record 20 majors, Nadal 17 and Djokovic is catching them up with 15.

The top-ranked Djokovic has won the past three majors in straight sets, including a stunning rout of Nadal in the Australian Open final this year. He also has a 28-25 winning record against Nadal – a considerable achievement in itself.

Yet despite all the positive points stacked up, he considers Nadal a different and much more dangerous opponent at this stage of the season.

“I think Rafa is always a very clear favorite on any clay court in the world, and it doesn’t change,” Djokovic said. “He’s still there. I mean (it) obviously depends how he’s feeling physically. I have seen him (training) here, he’s been here a few days. Seems like he’s fine.”

Djokovic referred to Nadal’s troublesome right knee, which flared up again last month and forced the second-ranked Nadal to pull out of his eagerly-awaited semifinal against Federer at Indian Wells.

That was on hard courts, however, and clay is kinder to the 32-year-old Nadal’s battered knees.

Nadal has won Monte Carlo 11 times, also a record. His 46-match winning streak in Monte Carlo – broken by Djokovic in the 2013 final – is the most consecutive wins at a tournament by any man or woman.

Both players have byes to the second round here, and are due to play Tuesday or Wednesday.

Nadal faces either countryman Roberto Bautista Agut or John Millman of Australia, having not lost to them. Djokovic’s opponent is Taro Daniel of Japan or Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber, who has lost eight of 10 matches against Djokovic but beat him at Indian Wells.

After winning the Australian Open, Djokovic had a blip few saw coming when he failed to reach the quarterfinals at both Indian Wells and the Miami Open.

He has already shrugged off those losses, or at least slotted them into perspective.

“I was disappointed, because I thought I could go far. But at the same time I’ll try to look on the positive side,” the 31-year-old Djokovic said. “I’ve had great form the past 12 months. That can serve only as an incentive.”

In opening first-round play Sunday, there were wins for three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, ninth-seeded Borna Coric of Croatia, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and Argentine Guido Pella.

Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, advanced with a 7-5, 6-3 win against Lucas Pouille – who has lost all his matches since being crushed by Djokovic in the Australian Open semis.

Coric beat Hubert Hurkacz of Poland 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 in damp and overcast conditions on the French Riviera, with heavy rain interrupting play early in the afternoon.

Dimitrov won 7-5, 6-4 against Matteo Berrettini, while Pella beat Laslo Djere 6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-4 and next plays seventh-seeded Marin Cilic.

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.