Djokovic dominates Shapovalov to win Paris Masters title

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PARIS — Novak Djokovic looked imperious in beating an overawed Denis Shapovalov 6-3, 6-4 Sunday to win his fifth Paris Masters final, clinching a 34th overall Masters title in fine style to move one behind record holder Rafael Nadal.

At 32 years old, Djokovic has already won 77 titles in a stellar career and fully intends to add many more.

“I don’t take them for granted like it’s something normal or usual or common. I’ve been blessed to win so many big titles in my life,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest reasons why I’m still playing professional tennis, to fight for these big trophies and to still be able to play the highest level.”

Shapovalov was mostly outclassed, even though he was physically fresh having avoided a potentially grueling semifinal because the second-ranked Nadal pulled out beforehand with an abdominal strain.

Still, the odds were heavily stacked against the 20-year-old Canadian, who was appearing in his first Masters final.

“I put him under pressure for the second serve and from the back of the court I was solid, not giving him too many opportunities,” said Djokovic, who felt unwell with a sore throat earlier in the week. “I feel like the second part of the week was terrific, it was improving day by day in terms of my level.”

Djokovic never appeared troubled on his way to a fifth ATP title this year – level best with Dominic Thiem.

He served out the match with a love hold, hitting a forehand winner before turning to look at his box and raising his arms in triumph.

“It was my best serving performance of the tournament,” Djokovic said. “Denis maybe lost his focus a bit.”

Shapovalov entered the match with only one career title – a modest ATP 250-level tournament in Stockholm last month – and having lost his three previous encounters against a 16-time Grand Slam winner considered among the all-time greats of tennis.

The big-serving left hander looked tense, making three unforced errors in his first service game and slipping quickly to 3-0 down against a composed Djokovic playing in his 50th Masters final and 111th overall. After botching a return on Djokovic’s opening serve of the seventh game he whacked his racket into the ground in frustration.

Dropping only four points on his serve in the first set, Djokovic clinched it with another dominant serving game which included two aces and concluded with a volleyed winner at the net.

“It was tough for me to find a groove just because he was really picking his spots on the serve,” Shapovalov said. “He just places it well, it’s tough to read.”

As Shapovalov’s unforced errors resurfaced in the seventh game, Djokovic broke him again for a 4-3 lead.

Djokovic saved his first break point of the match at 30-40 in the next game when Shapovalov returned a sliced serve well wide.

With that, the briefest glimmer of hope was gone.

“I’m sure the best things are yet to come for you,” Djokovic said to Shapovalov during the trophy ceremony.

Kind words, yet the gap to Djokovic’s level remains huge.

“It’s great to hear that, but I still have a long way to go,” Shapovalov said. “I want to be beating guys like Novak so I have to improve, find a way to return better.”

Djokovic has won every final he’s played at Bercy Arena except for last year’s against Karen Khachanov, which came after a three-hour semifinal slugfest against 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer.

This year, Djokovic did not drop a set and heads to the upcoming ATP Finals in London looking to secure the year-ending No. 1 ranking for a sixth time. That would move him two ahead of Nadal, one ahead of Federer and Jimmy Connors, and into a tie with record-holder Pete Sampras.

Nadal is also in strong contention to finish the year as No. 1 but it remains uncertain whether the Spaniard can play at the ATP Finals, which start Nov. 10.

“I’m sad to see that he’s injured because that’s not what you want to see. I know how that feels,” said Djokovic, who struggled nearly two years with an elbow injury. “Historically he’s had several injuries at the last part of the season, so I hope he can recover. Because without him, obviously the battle for No. 1, but also the tournament itself, is different.”

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.