Djokovic leads Serbia to win over Spain in ATP Cup final

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SYDNEY — Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal, again, in a must-win match to keep Serbia in contention. Then he went back on court within an hour and combined with long-time friend Viktor Troicki to clinch the very first ATP Cup.

In the country where the seven-time Australian Open champion performs like it’s his home away from home, Djokovic was the dominant figure in the debut of the 24-team, 10-day tournament.

“I have never experienced such a support in my matches ever anywhere, and I have played the biggest stadiums in tennis, and this was something different,” Djokovic said, crediting the thousands of Serbs who chanted, sang and recreated the atmosphere of a football stadium. “I want to thank everybody for contributing to this victory on and off the court.”

Second-ranked Djokivic had a 6-2, 7-6 (4) win over No. 1 Nadal on Sunday night to level the final after Roberto Bautista Agut had given Spain the lead by beating Dusan Lajovic 7-5, 6-1 in the first singles match.

After extending his lead to 29-26 in career head-to-heads with Nadal, and his supremacy over the Spaniard on hardcourts, Djokovic combined with Troicki for a 6-3, 6-4 win over Pablo Carreno Busta and Feliciano Lopez to clinch the title.

“I’ll remember this experience for the rest of my life – it’s one of the nicest moments of my career,” Djokovic said. “I’ve been very fortunately blessed, had an amazing career over the last 15 years, but playing for a team, playing for a country with some of my best friends is just – you can’t match that. It’s too special.”

He said the support from the Serbian community in Sydney was “off the charts.”

“There’s a lot of Serbian people in Sydney,” Djokovic said. “If you want to make a celebration, we’re ready.”

Djokovic has won nine straight against Nadal on hardcourts, and 19 consecutive sets, since losing the 2013 U.S. Open final.

Nadal withdrew from the doubles, citing fatigue, saying he had confidence in his teammate Lopez, a four-time Davis Cup champion.

“I have been playing a lot of tennis the last couple of days. My level of energy is a little bit lower than usual,” Nadal said. “So is a team decision, and we believe in our team. That’s why we had success in the past.”

After playing six singles matches and two doubles matches in 10 days – on both the west and east coasts of Australia – less than two months after guiding Spain to the Davis Cup title in Madrid, Nadal urged the International Tennis Federation and the ATP to negotiate to form one world team championship.

“I think (ATP Cup) is a great competition but … I can’t change my mind that two World Cups in one month is not real,” he said. “So we need to find a way to fix it and we need to find a way to make a big deal with ITF and ATP to create a big World Team Cup competition.”

Spain’s early lead put extra pressure on Djokovic. He hadn’t lost a singles match at the tournament – a run that includes wins over U.S. Open finalists Daniil Medvedev and Kevin Anderson as well as Gael Monfils and Denis Shapovalov, and started like losing wasn’t a consideration.

“I started off the match perfectly, really. Everything worked for me,” he said. “Serve got me out of trouble in the second set.”

He broke Nadal’s serve in the opening game, which lasted eight minutes and included two requests from the umpire to the crowd to keep quiet during the service motion.

Djokovic held for a 2-0 lead, the game going to deuce, and then didn’t concede a point on serve for his next three games, closing the set in 39 minutes with three straight aces.

Nadal got over his frustration with the noisy crowd and found his range in the second set, conceding just a point in each of his first three service games. He had also had a huge opportunity to go up a break in the sixth game, but was unable to convert five chances as Djokovic rallied from 0-40 to hold.

Djokovic then had two breakpoints in the 11th game, which would have given him the chance to serve for the match, but Nadal rallied from 15-40 to hold.

Djokovic had a nervy start to the tiebreaker, serving a double-fault to fall behind 2-1, but after his forehand clipped the net and landed in, he started to gain control. From 4-4, he won every point, starting the roll with a backhand winner down the line.

The 10,223-strong crowd at Ken Rosewall Arena was packed with Serbia supporters who waved their flags and chanted “Serbia, Serbia, Serbia,” and Djokovic’s nickname “Nole” throughout the final.

A little after 1 a.m. local time Monday, they were cheering for their champions.

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.