Ashleigh Barty advances to semifinals at WTA Finals

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SHENZHEN, China — Top-ranked Ash Barty reached the semifinals in her debut appearance at the WTA Finals, beating Petra Kvitova 6-4, 6-2 Thursday to finish with a 2-1 record in the Red Group.

Barty, the first Australian woman to earn year-end No. 1 ranking, won her first Grand Slam trophy at the French Open in June and then reached the top of the rankings.

“I feel like I executed really well tonight,” Barty said on court. “Overall, I knew I had to come out here and play aggressively, and play to win.

“I’m really excited to have another chance to come out and play here on this beautiful court.”

Belinda Bencic joined Barty in the semifinals after Kiki Bertens retired in their match with the Swiss player leading 7-5, 1-0.

Bencic, like Barty, is making her WTA Finals singles debut.

“It’s pretty amazing, especially (because) I made it (at) the last minute,” said Bencic, the last to qualify for the eight-player field. “I’m through the group (even though) I lost the first match here.”

Barty will next play either Karolina Pliskova or Simona Halep in the semifinals, while Bencic will face defending champion Elina Svitolina.

Barty saved all four break points she faced in the first set and broke Kvitova’s serve in the fifth game. The Czech player posted 20 unforced errors in the opening set.

In the first game of the second set, Barty broke Kvitova’s serve on her third break point and quickly jumped out to a 4-0 lead.

Kvitova, who won the season-ending title in her debut in 2011, finished the round robin 0-3 for the second consecutive year.

“When it came to the deciding points, she always played better than me,” Kvitova said. “I think the serve didn’t help me at all today.”

Bertens entered the tournament as an alternate after Naomi Osaka withdrew on Tuesday with a right shoulder injury.

The Dutchwoman, who would have moved onto the semifinals if she had beaten Bencic in the match, had her blood pressure taken on the court. She was teary-eyed when she decided to stop.

“I didn’t feel well on court,” Bertens said. “I had some problems with my stomach. The energy was not there and I was a little bit dizzy. It was just too much to continue.”

Also Thursday, Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the tournament with a left knee injury. She will be replaced by Sofia Kenin for the final round robin match on Friday against Svitolina.

“I had a scan Thursday to check my knee after last night’s match, and unfortunately the results show that I need to withdraw,” Andreescu said. “I’m very disappointed to not be able to finish the year on my terms, but I am hopeful I will have more chances to play here in the future.”

Kenin, who was guaranteed $125,000 as an alternate, will now earn at least $165,000 as a participant. If she wins her match against Svitolina, she will earn an additional $305,000.

Prior to Kenin’s inclusion, it was the first women’s year-end final in the 49-year history of the tournament not to feature an American in either singles or doubles.

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.