John Millman back at practice after backyard tennis during pandemic

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BRISBANE, Australia — Just four matches after losing his five-setter against Roger Federer at the Australian Open, John Millman was having to scramble to find a practice court.

It’s not like he was suddenly an unknown to Aussie tennis fans. More a case of making himself at home as the coronavirus pandemic forced athletes everywhere to think outside of the box.

The professional tennis tours have been suspended. His regular practice venue at the Queensland Tennis Centre, which hosts the season-opening Brisbane International, was shuttered during the lockdown because of strict social distancing restrictions.

So, Millman went the social route, playing on backyard courts that belonged to people he sometimes was meeting for the first time.

“It was awesome – really good fun,” he said. “I had a couple of lovely families that welcomed me in and allowed me to keep my eye in. It was really nice. Stuck to the (social distancing) protocols, of course, so we were ticking all those boxes.”

Chris Mahony, Queensland’s National Academy manager, organized for 12 professional players including Millman to have fitness equipment shipped to their homes and for them to maintain contact with trainers via digital and other means. He also organized a half-dozen courts owned by people from within the academy network where players could practice.

Then Millman widened the network to his fan base.

“I think Johnny said something in one of his newspaper articles and before he knew it, he had people contacting him and offering courts,” Mahony said.

With Australian authorities managing to contain the spread of the virus, the local lockdown is being eased gradually and some sports venues are reopening for practice.

So Millman and Co. were back at work on Monday in the shadows of Pat Rafter Arena.

The 30-year-old Millman has seen the highs of lows of being a tennis pro, from reaching the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 2018 after a win over then No. 2-ranked Federer that continued with his run into the Top 40 in the rankings, to playing in the lower tiers “for a couple of hundred bucks a round” after returning from surgeries.

Despite having only 12 competitive matches in 2020, including a grinding four-hour third-round loss to Federer on the center court at the Australian Open in January, Millman is in no rush for the tours to resume until it is safe for players, staff and officials.

He’s proposing instead some domestic team events in Australia to keep players occupied and give local tennis fans more of a look at Australian talent while international travel bans are in play.

The No. 43-ranked Millman is also happy for the conversation about player compensation to be high on the agenda around the tennis circuit, saying it’s years overdue. Players in some sports have been forced to take big pay cuts because of the coronavirus.

In tennis, Millman said, the problem runs deeper than the pandemic despite a recent push to increase prize money for the early rounds and qualifying tournaments at the Grand Slam events.

“Players outside 100 are struggling all year round whether there is coronavirus or not,” Millman told the Australian Associated Press. “It should be managed better by the ATP, the WTA and the ITF.

“Maybe this starts the discussion, but I won’t hold my breath.”

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.