Osaka, Thiem win China Open finals

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BEIJING — A surging Naomi Osaka found further redemption for a string of disappointing performances over the summer with her second consecutive title in Asia at the China Open on Sunday.

Osaka bounced back from a set down to top-seeded Ash Barty, cruising through the final two sets to defeat the top-seeded Australian 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 and accomplish her goal of returning to winning form on the tour’s Asian leg.

In the men’s final, top-seeded Austrian Dominic Thiem beat Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Osaka’s win follows the two-time Grand Slam winner’s victory last month at the Toray Pan Pacific Open in her birthplace of Osaka, Japan, her first singles title since the Australian Open in January.

“Honestly, all I was thinking about was how much I wanted to win so that made me very emotional,” Osaka said after the match. “In the second set I just tried to rationalize everything and then in the third set just continue what I was doing.”

Japan’s most dominant player came into the tour’s swing through Asia determined to make a statement following what she has called an on-and-off year that included a string of dismal performances in Europe and America.

“For me, this was my goal. After I lost in the U.S. Open … I really meditated on it. It just feels like I accomplished what I set out to do,” Osaka said.

The mid-year “dip” in her performance “really humbled me, and it made me very motivated to be here right now,” she said.

Osaka’s shaky start on Sunday included a trio of double-faults midway through the first set that helped put the French Open champion in the driver’s seat.

The second and third sets were an entirely different story, however, with Osaka bringing her service game under control and pounding her returns down the line. After breaking Barty in the seventh game, victory was all but assured, despite an attempted comeback by the Queensland native in match’s final minutes.

Known as a big-hitter, fourth-seeded Osaka seemed to benefit particularly from the cool, dry nighttime conditions, with temperatures hovering around 15 Celsius (59 F). Barty said the “sterile” conditions nullified the zippiness of her slice and reduced the variety of shots she was able to deploy.

“I was trying to belt it and I couldn’t crack an egg out there,” said top-ranked Barty, who last month reached the semifinals of the Wuhan Open in central China.

“Little half-chances that I wasn’t able to grab tonight, but I think all-in-all I think it was a solid performance and I’m just proud of the way we were able to fight and kind of grow through the week,” she told reporters.

Osaka, who has described her game as instinctual, said she didn’t know whether the conditions benefited her style of play, saying she paid little attention to such matters, an attitude that extends to her view of statistics and rankings.

“I’m not really too much of an analyst, so I can’t say whether the colder conditions helped me,” she said.

She also said she was grateful for the low-key presence of her stand-in coach, her father Leonard Francois, but said that arrangement wasn’t permanent.

“He annoys me so much that it makes me angry and I use the anger as a tool to win,” Osaka said. Watching her matches “stresses him out,” she added. “I don’t think it’s a long term thing.”

The victory evens the record between the pair to two-a-piece in their four meetings on tour.

Fifth-ranked Thiem recorded his fourth title in a season where the 26-year-old has defeated both Roger Federer and top-ranked Novak Djokovic.

He called the match against the third-seeded Tsitsipas one of the best of his career and said his early departure from the U.S. Open had left him “fresher than ever” for the later part of the season.

“Just trying to keep the momentum going,” Thiem said.

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.