Isner outlasts Sandgren at ASB Classic; top seed ousted

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Two-time champion John Isner beat defending champion Tennys Sandgren 7-6 (3), 6-7 (1), 6-3 Wednesday in an all-American second round match as the ASB Classic.

The only previous meeting between the pair, in Stockholm in 2018, went to three tie-breaks. Fourth-seeded Isner finally bucked that trend when achieved the first service break of the match in the fifth game of the third set and went to win the set in 28 minutes.

“Of course I’m happy about that,” Isner said. “It’s always a tough match playing Tennys. He does a lot of things really, really well on the court and when he and I match up it’s inevitably going to be close and that was the case today.

“I’ve very happy to get through and get through in somewhat comfortable fashion.”

Isner won the tournament in 2010 – his first ATP title – and again in 2014 for his only tournament wins outside the United States. While he has returned regularly, the last few years have not been as kind.

“I’ve always been a pretty slow starter so I’m very happy to win this match today,” he said. “I’ve lost my first match here the last three years I think. So I’ve bucked that trend in 2020 and I’m very happy about I hope I can play better tomorrow.”

The day didn’t start well for Sandgren. Because the Auckland tournament is being held a week later than usual the points Sandgren won last year, and which he would have defended, have expired and he dropped 33 ranking spots to No. 101.

But he started the match stronger than Isner. The 20th-ranked Isner was expected to dominate on serve but it was Sandgren whose serve was more formidable in the first set: he won his first two service games to love and dropped only three points on serve before the set went to a tiebreak.

A medical emergency in the bleachers caused a 10 minute delay before the tiebreaker began and Sandgren appeared to lose momentum. He double faulted on the first point and couldn’t recover, conceding the set.

He still looked out of form at the start of the second set, going to five deuces before winning his first service game while Isner held comfortably, steadily increasing his tally of aces.

The set again went to a tiebreak in which Sandgren was suddenly dominant, winning 7-1 to level the match.

Isner finally won a service break in the fifth game of the second set after a pivotal rally which lasted 26 shots, the longest of the match. He broke again in the ninth game to seal the match in 2-1/4 hours.

Organizers scheduled 18 matches on Wednesday, including first and second round singles, to make up for time lost the day before when only two matches were completed due to rain.

The 38-year-old Spaniard Feliciano Lopez was among players who had to play two matches on the same cay and in his second he upset top-seeded Fabio Fognini of Italy 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Lopez was on court 2-1/2 hours for a 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4 first round win over compatriot Pablo Andujar and returned to beat Fognini in just under two hours.

“Not bad for a 38-year-old,” Lopez said. “Because it rained yesterday I had to play two matches today.

“The first match was tough but I honestly think it was very helpful for me in order to play against Fabio because this morning was my first match this year so far, it was 2-1/2 hours and that was very helpful for me.

“Without that match I don’t think I could have played the way I played against Fabio.”

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.