Barty joins players expressing concern over U.S. Open timing

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BRISBANE, Australia — Ashleigh Barty has joined the ranks of high-profile players concerned over the staging of the U.S. Open while there’s still so much uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic.

The women’s No. 1 hasn’t had the chance yet to defend her French Open title because all elite tennis competition is shuttered. She’s already processed the fact there’ll be no Wimbledon in 2020 but is still awaiting clarity on the U.S. Open, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 31.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, winners of the last eight men’s major titles, have aired reservations about the potential restrictions on players, limits on player entourages and other changes being considered for the U.S. Open. Women’s No. 2 Simona Halep reportedly is also uncertain about playing.

“I have concerns too,” Barty said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “I understand the tournaments are eager to run but keeping everyone safe has to be the priority.”

A decision from the U.S. Tennis Association’s board about whether to hold the Grand Slam tournament in New York in August could be made as early as this week. The U.S. has accounted for more than 115,000 of the almost 433,000 deaths globally from COVID-19, including more than 30,000 in the state of New York, according to date compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Djokovic last week told Serbia’s state broadcaster RTS that most players he’s talked to “were quite negative” about entering the U.S. Open and that for him, “as things stand, most probably the season will continue on clay at the beginning of September.”

The French Open was postponed from a May start to late September because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Under usual circumstances, the U.S. Open is the last of the four majors to be played in the season, when the tours go back to hard courts following the grass and clay-court swings.

U.S. Open tournament director Stacey Allaster has said organizers have been trying to figure out how to “engage fans virtually,” making it unlikely that fans – or at least large groups of fans – will be allowed to attend.

Under proposals to get the tournament started, players would need to prove they had tested negative for COVID-19 before traveling on charter flights the USTA would organize from a handful of cities. There would likely be daily health questionnaires and temperature checks, along with occasional nasal, saliva or antibody testing.

Barty said she’s “still getting my head around what the tournament set up would be.” Australia closed its international borders in March and there’s still travel restrictions domestically and strict physical distancing regulations, although restrictions are easing. Australia has recorded 102 deaths from 7,335 cases of COVID-19, but the infection rate is declining.

“I can’t wait to get back out there and play but we have to make sure it’s safe to do so first, not just for me but for my team,” Barty told the AP.

Barty hasn’t played competitively since a semifinal loss to Petra Kvitova at the Qatar Open in late February. That followed her first title on home soil at the Adelaide International in January and her semifinal run at the Australian Open.

She’s been able to spend time at home in Australia’s Queensland state since March, keeping up tennis practice and fitness while also lowering her golf handicap during regular rounds with her partner Garry Kissick, a trainee golf pro. She had a 24th birthday during the height of the lockdown in April, and hosted a virtual party on Zoom earlier this month to mark the first anniversary of her first major singles title at Roland Garros.

A Grand Slam title defense is likely a priority for the remainder of the year, but there’s so much unknown.

“It’s tough to set goals, that’s for sure, (when) we still don’t really know what the rest of the year will look like, there is so much out of our control.,” Barty said. ”When we have some certainty on the rest of the year, my team and I will sit down and set a few tennis goals.”

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.