Roger Federer tops Rafael Nadal in South Africa

AP Photo
9 Comments

Roger Federer wasn’t going to lose this one to Rafael Nadal.

Not on what felt like a homecoming for Federer, who beat his great rival 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 in a three-set exhibition match at a soccer stadium in Cape Town, South Africa, on Friday.

It was Federer’s first match in his mother’s country of birth, and the country the Swiss great rates as his second home.

Almost everything was for Federer on the night. The caps and T-shirts with RF logos all across the crowd. The “Welcome home, Roger” signs being held up. The coin for the toss, a newly minted 20 Swiss Francs with Federer’s image on it. Federer recently became the first living Swiss to be engraved on one of the nation’s coins.

Even South Africa’s biggest sports stars were in awe. Siya Kolisi, South Africa’s Rugby World Cup-winning captain, came out pre-match to present Federer with a South Africa team jersey with Federer’s name on the back. He was asked who he was supporting.

“Definitely Team Roger,” Kolisi said. “Sorry, Nadal, I love you, too.”

Nadal smiled graciously on the other side of the net.

The exhibition at Cape Town Stadium was to raise money for the Roger Federer Foundation, which supports early childhood education in six southern African countries, including South Africa. The foundation was hoping to top $1 million from the exhibition. It raised $3.5 million.

Also, a sellout crowd of 51,954 came to the Cape Town Stadium – built for the 2010 soccer World Cup – to watch Federer and Nadal turn it on. That’s the biggest crowd ever on record for a tennis match. Organizers said the demand for tickets was in the region of 200,000 requests.

“It was a magical evening,” said Federer, who came to South Africa regularly on childhood vacations with his family but hadn’t been to Cape Town in 20 years.

The 38-year-old Federer, winner of a record 20 Grand Slam singles titles, and the 33-year-old Nadal, with 19 slams, laughed and joked regularly between points.

But they were typically competitive when the ball was in play.

Federer won the first point with a high backhand volley, and broke in the first game on the way to taking the opening set 6-4.

Nadal broke back twice at the start of the second set and unleashed his big forehand winners, grunting loudly in the process, to level at one-set-all.

Federer won with a dainty drop shot on match point. Nadal gave everything to get there, and was going so fast he couldn’t stop in time and had to leap over the net.

He ended up standing next to Federer and they hugged.

“We tried our best as always,” Nadal said. “It’s a lifetime experience playing in front of such an amazing crowd in an amazing stadium. It was a big pleasure for me to be part of it.”

Ultimately, the match showed off the real friendship that lies beneath the fierce rivalry that began when Federer and Nadal played each other for the first time on tour at the Miami Open 16 years ago.

Federer also revealed that on the day of the exhibition, Nadal told him for the first time that he secretly cried for joy when Federer finally won the French Open in 2009.

Federer pulled in a couple of big-name friends alongside Nadal to help out on the night: Bill Gates and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah. Before the main match, Federer and Gates teamed up to beat Nadal and Noah 6-3 in a one-set doubles exhibition.

Microsoft co-founder Gates played one pinpoint lob volley that the announcer described as “the billionaire’s touch.”

Comedian Noah did plenty of good-natured trash talking. He shares a similar heritage to Federer. Both have Swiss fathers and South African mothers.

“Roger’s at a disadvantage. We’re both half-Swiss, half-South African, so I’m in his head. I know what he’s going to do,” Noah, who wore a pink shirt and black headband to match partner Nadal, said before the doubles match.

Nadal has a 14-10 advantage over Federer in finals, leads 10-4 in their meetings at Grand Slams, and 24-16 in their career matches. Five years younger, the Spaniard may well go past Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slams.

“I hope I can still play for a bit longer,” Federer said. “We’ll see how much more. But there’s still lots to look forward to.

“In my dreams, I never dreamed this far. I hoped to win just one Wimbledon. If he (Nadal) catches me, it’s OK.”

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

australian open
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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

us davis cup
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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.