Wimbledon: Big 3 rule men; more champions in women’s tennis

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WIMBLEDON, England — As the start of Wimbledon approaches, two recent trends capture the completely disparate states of men’s and women’s tennis at the moment.

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have combined to win the past 10 Grand Slam tournaments, while nine women collected trophies in that span – including a half-dozen first-time major winners.

And consider this: There hasn’t been a first-time men’s champ at any Slam tournament since Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.

“If you start looking at the stats,” said Kevin Anderson, the runner-up to Djokovic at Wimbledon last year, “it’s really unbelievable.”

At the All England Club, where play begins Monday, the superiority of that select group of men is particularly pronounced. One needs to go all the way back to 2002 to find a men’s champion outside of the quartet of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray, who will be playing only doubles this time as he works his way back from hip surgery.

Since Federer claimed his initial Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003, he has won the grass-court tournament a men’s-record eight times. Djokovic owns four trophies at Wimbledon; Nadal has two. They rank 1-3 in overall majors for men, with Federer atop the list at 20, Nadal next at 18 and Djokovic third at 15.

“We were happy to win one. Now, if you win one, you’re a loser,” said Pat Cash, the 1987 champion at Wimbledon and twice the runner-up at the Australian Open.

“It’s absolutely mind-boggling to see the standard of tennis that these guys are playing at this age. And the motivation. That’s the thing: the motivation. Once I won a Grand Slam, I was (thinking): `That’s enough. I’ll go hang out with my family.’ They’re motivated to keep going.”

Federer turns 38 in August, Nadal is 33 and Djokovic 32.

For quite a while now, the questions have been: How long will the Big Three continue to rule the sport?

And: Which younger player will make a move and grab a Grand Slam title?

“You’re looking at, to me, the three greatest players that have ever lived, playing at the same time,” said John McEnroe, an eight-time major champion who is now an ESPN commentator. “They’re extremely hungry, which is an amazing quality at that age. They’ve psyched out opponents, I believe. And they’re better.”

That same dynamic was in play for years in women’s tennis, but with just one player dominating: Serena Williams. She accumulated title after title, only occasionally facing much resistance while raising her count to 23 singles majors, more than anyone in the Open era, which dates to 1968.

That left her one short of equaling Margaret Court’s total of 24, accomplished against both amateurs and professionals.

Williams took a break from the tour after winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant and, not coincidentally, that was the start of the current anyone-can-win stretch, in which Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko each won her first major championship.

It’s not just about who is taking home the trophies. Take a look at the most recent major, the French Open.

Nadal, who won there for the 12th time, Federer and Djokovic were all in the men’s semifinals. The women’s final four, meanwhile, featured a pair of unseeded semifinalists for the first time in Paris since the introduction of 32 seeds in 2001; the champion, Barty, hadn’t even been to the fourth round at any Slam until last year’s U.S. Open.

Barty’s subsequent rise to No. 1 in the ranking highlighted another way in which men’s and women’s tennis have been different: She was the 17th player to sit atop the WTA since 2005; only four men – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray – have led the ATP in those years.

Despite a career record of 2-3 at Wimbledon, Barty is the bookmakers’ favorite. Djokovic, Federer and Nadal are, not surprisingly, the top choices among men.

Truth is, with the way things are, it would not be all that shocking to see just about anyone in the women’s draw hold the trophy at the end of the fortnight.

Any man outside of the Big Three would cause quite a stir.

“It would be highly surprising if it’s not one of those three guys at this stage,” McEnroe said. “I think a lot of us want to be surprised and see who could step up.”

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.