Alexander Zverev advances to semis at ATP Finals

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LONDON — Defending champion Alexander Zverev secured the last semifinal spot at the ATP Finals on Friday, eliminating Rafael Nadal in the process.

Zverev beat already eliminated Daniil Medvedev 6-4, 7-6 (4) at the O2 Arena to finish second behind Stefanos Tsitsipas in the group and set up a semifinal against Dominic Thiem.

Earlier, Nadal stayed in contention by rallying to beat Tsitsipas 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 for his second win of the round-robin stage.

But Zverev’s win left him, Nadal, and Tsitispas with identical 2-1 records – with the top-ranked Spaniard eliminated based on the tournament’s tiebreaker rules.

It means only one of tennis’ Big Three made the semifinals as Novak Djokovic was also eliminated on Thursday. Tsitsipas will face six-time champion Roger Federer in the first semifinal on Saturday.

“The young guys have been playing much better tennis than they were maybe last year,” Zverev said. “Nobody expected (Nadal) to be out from our group. Our group was very, very difficult, and for me and Stefanos to qualify, I don’t think a lot of people would have picked (that).”

Medvedev (0-3) had only pride to play for against Zverev and was broken in the opening game. The Russian largely held his own after that but couldn’t force a single break point and double-faulted to go 5-3 down in the second-set tiebreaker.

Zverev converted his first match point with an ace.

The seventh-ranked German had a major breakthrough in winning last year’s tournament, beating Federer in the semifinals and Djokovic in the final. He’ll come up against Thiem, who impressed by beating those same two players in the group phase this week.

“He’s playing unbelievable tennis, and it’s going to be a very difficult match,” Zverev said. “Honestly, I’m just happy to be in the semis, and from here on we’ll just see how it goes.”

Tsitsipas had already secured a semifinal spot by winning his opening two matches but still pushed Nadal to the wire in a match that lasted nearly three hours.

That effort could cost him against Federer, who needed only 1 hour, 13 minutes to beat Novak Djokovic in his final group-stage match on Thursday and spent Friday resting up.

But at 21, Tsitsipas is 17 years younger than Federer, and said he felt confident he’ll recover quickly.

“It’s OK, my body feels well currently,” Tsitsipas said. “I don’t feel pain anywhere. I feel fresh, honestly. After having a long, difficult match like this, I feel like I can go out and play tomorrow the same way. So I don’t have any problem with that.”

After saving a match point at 5-1 down in the third set against Medvedev on Wednesday before rallying to win, Nadal’s comeback wasn’t quite as dramatic this time.

He never faced a break point in the match but lost the last three points of the first-set tiebreaker to hand Tsitsipas the lead.

But he broke for a 5-3 lead in the second set and again to make it 6-5 in the third, then converted his first match point when Tsitsipas netted a forehand.

After the match, Nadal was presented with a trophy on court for having secured the year-end No. 1 ranking.

Djokovic’s chances of overtaking him ended when he was eliminated with the loss to Federer.

It’s the fifth time that the 19-time Grand Slam winner ends the year atop the rankings, tied for second on the all-time list with Djokovic, Federer and Jimmy Connors. Pete Sampras did it six times.

At 33, Nadal is the oldest man to finish the year as No. 1.

“Honestly, after all the things that I went through in my career in terms of injuries, I never thought that at the age of 33 1/2, I would have this trophy in my hands again,” Nadal said.

However, he has never won the ATP Finals despite qualifying for a 15th year in a row. He has had to pull out of the tournament on six occasions because of injuries and reached the final only twice, the last time in 2013.

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.