Nadal beats Auger-Aliassime to advance at Madrid Open

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MADRID — Rafael Nadal was concerned going into his first match at the Madrid Open.

He lost practice time ahead of the tournament because of a stomach virus and didn’t know exactly how his body would react when he stepped onto the “Magic Box” center court on Wednesday.

But despite the lack of preparation and the physical toll of the illness, Nadal cruised to a 6-3, 6-3 win over Canadian teenager Felix Auger-Aliassime to reach the third round in the Spanish capital.

Playing only a few days after falling ill, Nadal lost only four points on his serve in the first set and broke Auger-Aliassime three times in the second.

“I’ve had this stomach virus for a few days so this was a very important match for me,” the second-ranked Spaniard said. “I’ve been improving but obviously the body remains a bit debilitated for a while. I’m very happy with the victory. It was very important.”

Nadal is trying to rebound from consecutive eliminations in the semifinals of both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, which marked his worst start to the clay-court season in four years.

“The important thing is to win, you know, especially given what’s happened in the last three days,” he said. “In general, it’s a day to be very satisfied, very happy.”

A five-time champion in Madrid, Nadal will next face American Frances Tiafoe, who defeated Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“He is playing really well,” Nadal said of Tiafoe. “He has that drive and energy and it will be a good test for me and an opportunity for me to play a tough match and to keep improving.”

The 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime is having his breakthrough season on tour, having moved to 30th in the rankings after reaching the final in Rio and the semifinals in Miami.

He converted on his only break opportunity of the match late in the second set, but Nadal broke right back to close out the match at the “Magic Box” center court. The 17-time Grand Slam champion converted four of his 10 break opportunities, with the last one coming on his sixth-match point of the final game.

Earlier, Juan Martin Del Potro squandered a match point in a 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 loss to Laslo Djere in his second tournament since injuring his knee in October. Del Potro converted only two of his 11 break opportunities, failing to capitalize on the match point at 5-4 in the final set. The Argentine had last played in Delray Beach in February, losing in the quarterfinals.

Stan Wawrinka defeated Guido Pella 6-3, 6-4 and will face Kei Nishikori, who got past Bolivian qualifier Hugo Dellien 7-5, 7-5.

Fabio Fognini beat John Millman 6-2, 6-2, while Gael Monfils edged Marton Fucsovics 1-6, 6-4, 6-2. Estoril Open champion Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Adrian Mannarino 6-2, 7-5.

On the women’s side, top-ranked Naomi Osaka reached the quarterfinals with a straight-set win over Aliaksandra Sasnovich and will next face Belinda Bencic, who dropped only two games in her victory over Kateryna Kozlova.

“I’m at a really good place right now,” Osaka said. “I feel like I’m having fun playing tennis again, which is always a good thing for me and I always play well if I have that mentality.”

Sloane Stephens needed three sets to defeat Saisai Zheng, while third-seeded Simona Halep routed Viktoria Kuzmova 6-0, 6-0.

“I think everything went very well for me to today,” said Halep, a two-time champion in Madrid. “I felt the ball, every single shot.”

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.