Palermo Open to mark the return of tennis

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ROME — Two Grand Slam champions. A finalist from last year’s French Open. A handful of top-20 players.

With second-ranked Simona Halep joined by 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and last year’s Roland Garros finalist Marketa Vondrousova, the upcoming Palermo Ladies Open will be like no other.

“The entry list is incredible. It’s practically like a Premier,” tournament director Oliviero Palma said in a phone interview with The Associated Press this week, referring to the WTA tour’s top-level tennis events.

Also entered are No. 14 Johanna Konta, No. 15 Petra Martic and No. 20 Maria Sakkari.

The reason for such a high-profile field in a small clay-court tournament usually skipped over by top players is simple: The Aug. 3-9 event marks the return of tour-level tennis following a five-month break for the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s the first official event – for men or women – since early March.

“It’s certainly a big honor for us but also a matter of great responsibility,” Palma said. “We’re the first in the world and we need to experiment all of the new rules.”

Rules such as players handling their own towels instead of being assisted by ball kids; no handshakes at the end of matches; no autographs or photos with fans; and no showers for players at the venue.

Players and anyone who comes into contact with players will be administered nasal swab tests for COVID-19 before they depart for Palermo, upon arrival, and then again every four days.

So far, the biggest problem for the tournament hasn’t been positive tests but travel restrictions, which resulted in the withdrawal of two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and have limited the field to exclusively European players.

“We knew when we decided to go forward with the tournament that there would be some unexpected developments,” Palma said. “All we can do is keep our fingers crossed.”

Halep, who is from Romania, was also put at risk of missing out, after Italy’s health minister on Friday signed an ordinance requiring all those who have in the last 14 days stayed in Romania or Bulgaria to quarantine.

Palma responded to the ordinance by making an urgent appeal to Health Minister Roberto Speranza to make a special exemption for the players competing in Palermo.

Palma revealed that third-ranked Karolina Pliskova also asked for a top-10 wild card like Halep but that the Czech player will come only if the U.S. Open is canceled.

“Otherwise she’ll head to the U.S. at the start of August,” Palma said. “These tournaments are going to become more like regional events in these conditions. There’s going to be an American circuit and a European circuit.”

On Thursday, 11 men’s and women’s tournaments planned for China in October and November – including the WTA Finals – were canceled because of the pandemic.

While Italy was the global epicenter of the virus in March and has recorded more than 35,000 deaths from COVID-19, Sicily was not hard hit and counted only 163 positive cases in its latest report.

A limited number of fans will be permitted to attend the tournament, with 280 allowed in for each session, bringing the total number of people inside the 1,500-seat stadium court – including players – to 327.

Fans and anyone else attending will also be tested for the virus.

With fewer tickets sold, tournament prize money has been reduced from $250,000 in 2019 to $222,500.

“A top-10 player could care less about the prize money here,” Palma said. “They’re coming just because they want to play and return to their normal lives.”

Linette keeps getting better; into Australian Open semis

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Two days after advancing to her first Grand Slam tournament quarterfinal, unseeded Magda Linette went one better and is into the Australian Open semifinals.

The 30-year-old Linette beat Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 7-5, adding the former No. 1 to the list of top players she has beaten at Melbourne Park during this tournament.

Linette, who had lost seven of nine previous matches against Pliskova, had defeated Anett Kontaveit, Ekaterina Alexandrova and WTA Finals champion Caroline Garcia in successive rounds.

A player from Poland was favored to reach the latter stages of the tournament, but it was top-seeded Iga Swiatek that everyone would have expected – and not Linette.

“It’s so emotional I can’t really believe it,” Linette said. “I tried to stay composed and took my chances when I could.”

Linette will play No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka, who beat unseeded Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-2 in a later quarterfinal. The women’s semifinals are scheduled for Thursday night.

Vekic, who had 13 double faults against Sabalenka, had a succinct appraisal of her serve: “I mean, it was all over the place. But I think mostly in the net.”

The other women’s semifinalists were determined on Tuesday. Two-time former Australian champion Victoria Azarenka will play Wimbledon titleholder Elena Rybakina for a chance to play in Saturday night’s final. Rybakina beat Swiatek in the fourth round.

Later Wednesday, the remaining men’s semifinalists will be determined. Unseeded Americans Ben Shelton and Tommy Paul play before nine-time champion Novak Djokovic takes on Andrey Rublev.

Djokovic will be looking to qualify for his 44th Grand Slam semifinal and a win in that match on Friday would advance him on Sunday night to his 33rd major singles final.

The other men’s semifinal on Friday will see third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas play Karen Khachanov.

Rybakina rules in Australian Open quarterfinal vs. Ostapenko

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia – Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina advanced to the Australian Open semifinals with a 6-2, 6-4 win over former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

The match on Rod Laver Arena featured a rare rain delay of about 20 minutes while the roof was closed. Rybakina led 3-1 and was holding a break point before the delay. On return, Ostapenko saved the first break point, but Rybakina broke on her next opportunity to go up 4-1 and won the first set 6-2.

In the second set, Ostapenko was up a break but Rybakina leveled with a break of her own. It came on her first break point when Ostapenko had been unable to convert four in the previous game.

Rybakina, who beat top-seeded Iga Swiatek in the fourth round, set up match points with aces, both of which were saved by Ostapenko. But she clinched the match with another ace, her 11th of the match and a tournament-leading 35 overall.

“I was nervous in the last game, but I managed my emotions and played very well.” Rybakina said. “The conditions were different after the roof was closed. But it can happen here, you never know, on the morning one weather and later it changes.”

Rybakina will play the winner of the night quarterfinal between American Jessica Pegula, at No. 3 the highest women’s seed remaining, and two-time champion Victoria Azarenka.

In men’s quarterfinals, 22-year-old American Sebastian Korda played the next match at Rod Laver Arena against No. 18-seeded Karen Khachanov. In a night quarterfinal, third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas plays Jiri Lehecka. The winners of those matches will play each other in the semifinals on Friday.