Barty gets started with a comeback win at Aussie Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — So this is how the Barty begins Down Under.

Top-ranked Ash Barty lost the first set of her first-round match at the Australian Open, where she’s aiming to be the first homegrown winner in more than 40 years, before recovering to beat Leisa Tsurenko 5-7, 6-1, 6-1.

The slightly leaky roof was closed on Rod Laver Arena as heavy rain lashed Melbourne on Monday, and the parochial home crowd was slightly subdued after Barty lost a first set containing a combined five breaks of serve. No worries, mate. The French Open champion “fixed a few things” in her approach, and Tsurenko won only two more games in the next 52 minutes.

“Absolutely incredible,” Barty said of her first match of the year on Melbourne Park’s premier stage. “Probably the moment I’ve been looking forward to the most in the off-season.”

She had only had one day off between winning her first title on Australia soil – in Adelaide on Saturday night – and her first Grand Slam match of the decade.

Tsurenko, a 30-year-old Ukrainian ranked No. 120, had won their only previous encounter and was proving difficult again in the first dozen games.

“Look, I think I was pressing a little bit early. Made a few too many errors,” said Barty, who is so Aussie that her name is used on the labels of Vegemite, that uniquely Australian food spread. “I was rushing it a little bit trying to finish off too early.

“But I was able to tighten the screws in the second set and run away with it.”

Barty’s breakout season in 2019 began with a run to the Australian Open quarterfinals, which launched the so-called Barty Party.

There’s bigger home expectations this time, now that she’s won a major – on clay at Roland Garros – ascended to No. 1 and finished off last year with victory in the WTA Finals and a run to the Fed Cup final for Australia.

It’s an impressive run for a 23-year-old allrounder who took time out from tennis to pursue a cricket career before returning to the tour in 2017, plays golf with a 10-handicap and closely follows her favorite club, Richmond, in the Australian Football League.

The pressure of playing at home isn’t something she struggles with.

“Slams always feel like there’s a lot of chaos going because there’s so many people. It’s busy with singles and doubles players, mixed players, families, coaches, everyone underneath. It’s just chaos,” she said. “When you’re able to separate that from when you step on the court is when you can do a little bit better, play a little bit better, feel a little bit more comfortable.”

Barty said she’s handling the expectations better with each Grand Slam event.

“It’s an experience thing. You have to learn how to deal with it, but it’s getting better,” she said. “I’m doing it with my team. We’re doing it as a team. We’re loving it. We’re embracing it. There’s no other way to approach it.”

No Australian woman has won the national title since Chris O’Neil in 1978. For a long time, Australia’s main hopes of breaking that drought were on Sam Stosur. The 35-year-old Stosur has had to hand that responsibility over to Barty, and wish her luck.

Stosur beat Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open in 2011, a year after reaching the French Open final, but has never gone past the fourth round at Melbourne Park.

Not long before Barty’s opening win, Stosur lost to 18-year-old American qualifier Caty McNally 6-1, 6-4 for her fifth consecutive first-round exit at the Australian Open.

“I think all the Aussies would feel it,” Stosur said of the local expectations. “Some thrive on it, some find it a little bit harder.”

McNally got a boost from watching a big win by sometimes doubles partner Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old American who beat 39-year-old Venus Williams – a seven-time major champion.

Stosur may not have been able to use the crowd to her advantage, but McNally worked out a way to do it.

“I knew the fans were going to be probably cheering against me, but I kind of just used that as an advantage,” she said. “To the beat of their cheering, I just said my name in my head, and it actually helped me a lot.”

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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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.