Federer braces for another next-gen challenge in 2020

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LONDON — After dominating the tennis world for so long, Roger Federer thinks the sport’s Big Three could face their toughest challenge yet from a new generation in 2020.

Federer’s 2019 season ended with a semifinal loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas on Saturday at the ATP Finals, having seen Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal eliminated in the group stage of the tournament this week.

Tsitsipas, a 21-year-old Greek who is playing at the ATP Finals for the first time, is among a handful of up-and-coming talents looking to finally end the unprecedented era of dominance by that trio. Other youngsters at the season-ending tournament include defending champion Alexander Zverev at 22 and U.S. Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev at 23.

However, it’s not the first time that the 38-year-old Federer has faced talk about a talented crop of youngsters, even though none of them have so far been able to break the Big Three’s iron grip on the sport.

It’s the same question every year at the end of the year, Federer said about the new generation. But does it feel like this year might be the best year yet? Possibly. But then I look at the list of who finished World No. 1, who has been World No. 1 all these years, and it’s just crazy that it’s always one of us. But we are not getting any younger. So chances increase not because we are getting worse but because they are getting better.

Nadal clinched his fifth year-end No. 1 title this week, putting him level with both Federer and Djokovic. Since 2004, the only other person to finish the year atop the rankings was Andy Murray in 2016.

In addition, the Big Three have won the last 12 Grand Slam titles between them. And until one of the youngsters ends that streak, any talk of a generation shift is premature.

Definitely it’s that next step they need, Federer said. The only issue is that it seems like me, Novak, and Rafa are healthy, healthier than maybe in previous years, as well.

The third-ranked Federer ends the year with four ATP titles, but failed to add to his record haul of 20 Grand Slams when he lost an epic Wimbledon final to Djokovic, despite holding two match points in the fifth set.

He also fell short of a record-extending seventh ATP Finals title after converting just one of 12 break points against Tsitsipas, losing 6-3, 6-4.

As long as he stays healthy, though, Federer is confident he’s still good enough to compete for more majors next season.

I’ve got to keep on playing at the level like I have this year, and then I will create some chances, he said. Then when the matches come, it’s not maybe as easy as it was maybe 10, 15 years ago where you’re just going to play very good, day in, day out. (Opportunities) were there today … They were there in other moments as well this season, maybe Indian Wells or Wimbledon or whatever. That can change an entire season around, the confidence around, the flow of things. But I’m happy how I played this season, and I’m extremely excited for next season.

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.