Nadal, Bautista Agut lead Spain to Davis Cup title

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MADRID — Rafael Nadal gave all he had on the Caja Magica center court in Madrid.

The top-ranked Spanish star even admitted he risked getting injured by playing eight matches – five singles, three doubles – in six days at the Davis Cup Finals, the new World Cup of men’s team tennis.

Nadal won all his matches, leading Spain to its sixth Davis Cup title after a 2-0 win over first-time finalist Canada on Sunday.

But in Nadal’s eyes, the only hero for Spain was grieving teammate Roberto Bautista Agut. He sent Spain on its way to victory by winning the first singles match on Sunday, three days after the death of his father.

“I’ve won the eight matches but the person who was vital in this Davis Cup was Roberto,” Nadal said. “For me, what he did was something almost inhumane. I don’t know how to explain it. It will be an example for the rest of my life. He had to leave, then his dad died, then he came back and practiced with us yesterday, and today he was ready again to play at a very high level. It was something incredible.”

Before Nadal defeated Denis Shapovalov 6-3, 7-6 (7) to clinch the title – Spain’s first since also winning at home in 2011 – Bautista Agut had given Spain a 1-0 lead by beating Felix Auger-Aliassime 7-6 (3), 6-3.

Bautista Agut pointed his finger to the sky after winning the final point in his match, and was in tears while speaking briefly to the crowd, which chanted his name.

“It was an amazing feeling on the court today,” said Bautista Agut, who was the Spanish player lifting the cup in the title celebrations.

Bautista Agut’s father died on Thursday – a day after his son had defeated Nikola Mektic of Croatia – with his health deteriorating quickly after an illness that stemmed from a 2016 accident.

It was Nadal who had tears in his eyes when Bautista Agut thanked him for his efforts during the tournament.

“You gave us goosebumps all week, especially today,” Bautista Agut said. “Thank you. I’m sure that next year you will do it again.”

The 31-year-old Bautista Agut, No. 9 in the world, played as teammates Pablo Carreno Busta and Marcel Granollers nursed injuries entering the final.

“I had the opportunity to play today because all the team and all the players did an unbelievable effort since the first day,” Bautista Agut said.

Nadal considered himself lucky to be able to play all matches.

“It’s true that I held up, but we know that playing so many matches in this (hard court) surface is risky for me, something can happen at any time,” Nadal said. “That’s how it’s been in the past, but luckily I held up.”

Spain’s Marcel Granollers and Feliciano Lopez had been scheduled to face Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil in the now canceled doubles, although Nadal was likely to play if the title had been at stake. Nadal played in the decisive doubles on Friday and Saturday.

Voted the tournament’s best player, Nadal sealed the title with his 29th straight Davis Cup singles win, igniting the home crowd’s celebrations.

Tournament organizer and Barcelona soccer star Gerard Pique, his wife Shakira – who performed in the closing ceremony – and Spanish King Felipe VI were among those celebrating Spain’s triumph.

Spain’s other Davis Cup titles were in 2000, ’04, ’08, ’09 and ’11.

Canada was seeking its first Davis Cup title since debuting in the competition in 1913.

“I feel like we’ve really come really far as a team, as a nation,” the 20-year-old Shapovalov said. “Definitely we’re super proud. Obviously it sucks, sucks losing in the finals. But I’m super proud of everyone. We’ve put in 120% every single day. It’s amazing how far we’ve been able to come.”

The Canadians eliminated Italy and the United States in the group stage, and Australia and Russia in the knockout rounds.

The 19-year-old Auger-Aliassime lost to Bautista Agut while making his debut in this year’s tournament. He was coming off an ankle injury that had seen him sidelined through the group stage and the quarterfinals and semifinals.

Canada came to Madrid without Milos Raonic because of a back injury. Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil were the only players who had competed until Sunday.

Spain beat Russia and Croatia in the group stage, and Argentina and Britain in the knockout rounds.

The new Davis Cup Finals is the result of a 25-year partnership between the International Tennis Federation and the Kosmos group co-founded by Pique. For the first time, 18 nations played in the same venue in a single week, instead of head-to-head matches that used to take place over four weekends throughout the year.

The tournament returns to Madrid next year.

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.