Nadal confident arriving in Madrid despite disappointing run

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MADRID — Rafael Nadal hasn’t started the clay-court season with these many setbacks in four years.

Not since 2015 had Nadal arrived at the Madrid Open without having won a title either in Monte Carlo or in Barcelona, the tournaments that mark the start of clay swing in Europe.

That year, Nadal was coming off a series of injuries and ended not reaching the final of either tournament. He also didn’t win the title in Madrid, Rome and the French Open, dropping out of the top five in the rankings for the first time in a decade.

Now things are different, though. Despite the disappointing results, the second-ranked Nadal says there is no reason for concern.

“My confidence is back,” Nadal said after the semifinal loss to Dominic Thiem in Barcelona, which ended his run of three straight titles in the tournament. “I really believe that I made very good improvements to create a good base to try to achieve my goals during the next couple of weeks.”

Nadal will be trying to win his third straight French Open title – and 12th overall – at Roland Garros in June.

He lost to Fabio Fognini in the semifinals at Monte Carlo, where he also had won three titles in a row. The only other time Nadal hadn’t won either in Monte Carlo or in Barcelona was in 2014.

“Against Fognini I played the worst match probably in 14 years on clay. (Against Thiem) I played a good match. I was competitive and I enjoyed the match. I really felt competitive for the first time in a way that I want to feel myself. I am happy and I am confident that I made a big improvement.”

The 17-time Grand Slam winner has won a clay-court title in each of the last 15 seasons. He is an eight-time finalist in Madrid, with his last of five titles coming in 2017. He was defeated by Thiem in the quarterfinals last year.

Nadal will start this year’s campaign against the winner of the match between young Canadians Felix Auger-Aliassime or Denis Shapovalov, a semifinalist last year. Auger-Aliassime is one of the sensations on tour this season, having reached the final in Rio and the semifinals in Miami.

The other half of the Madrid draw has top-seeded Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who will be making his return to clay-court tournaments after two seasons. The 37-year-old Federer, a three-time champion in Madrid, is preparing to make his first French Open appearance since 2015.

Federer hasn’t played on clay since Rome in 2016, but is looking for his third title of the season to add to his triumphs in Dubai and Miami. The only other player with two titles this season is Thiem, who beat Federer in the Indian Wells final. Federer and Thiem could meet in the quarterfinals in Madrid.

The defending champion in Madrid is Alexander Zverev, the German who did not drop his serve in his winning campaign last year. He will start this year’s tournament against David Ferrer, the veteran Spaniard who is retiring following the tournament in Madrid.

Petra Kvitova will defend her title in the women’s side. The second-seeded Czech is a three-time champion in Madrid and the tournament’s most successful women’s player with 27 wins and six losses. Naomi Osaka is the top-seed player this year in Madrid.

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.