Serena Williams loses to opponent ranked 116th

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Entering Friday, Serena Williams had played 967 tour-level singles matches as a professional, with just four losses against opponents ranked outside the top 100 – and none in eight years.

Well, it’s time to add to that list: Williams was beaten by No. 116 Shelby Rogers 1-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5) in the Top Seed Open quarterfinals.

“It’s good to know,” Williams said, “I can play a lot, lot, lot better.”

She’ll want to do so soon: The U.S. Open begins Aug. 31.

Rogers, who is from South Carolina, took six of the last eight points Friday after trailing 3-1 in the tiebreaker to collect only her third career victory over a top-10 opponent.

She also reached her first WTA semifinal since 2016. Need to go even further back in the record books to find this sort of tournament exit for former No. 1 Williams: The owner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles hadn’t bowed out against someone so low in the rankings since No. 111 Virginie Razzano stunned her at the 2012 French Open.

Shortly after that, Williams teamed up with coach Patrick Mouratoglou, who still works with her and was among the few people in the stands Friday — fans are not allowed at the first tennis tournament in the U.S. since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

It had happened only three other times, including in qualifying at Quebec City all the way back in 1995, when Williams was making her professional debut at age 14. Now she’s 38; Rogers is 27.

“It’s every kid’s dream when they’re growing up, watching her play, to be able to do something like that,” Rogers said. “Weird circumstances, weird setting, but a win is a win and I know we’re all just happy to be back playing.”

Later Friday, 16-year-old American Coco Gauff reached her second WTA semifinal with quite a comeback. One point from trailing by a set and two breaks, Gauff won 10 of the last 11 games to eliminate No. 8 seed Ons Jabeur 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Gauff was down 4-2 in the second set and facing a break point, but Jabeur sailed a backhand long. That was enough to let Gauff back into the match and she soon took full control.

In the semifinals, Gauff will meet Jennifer Brady, who advanced by beating Marie Bouzkova 6-1, 6-2.

Rogers faces Jil Teichmann of Switzerland on Saturday. Teichmann needed seven match points to reach the first hard-court semifinal of her career with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over CiCi Bellis.

The loss to Rogers was the third consecutive three-setter for Williams at the hard-court Top Seed Open. She dropped the opening set of each of the others before coming back to win, including against older sister Venus in the second round.

On Friday, starting after a rain delay of more than two hours, Williams seemed on the way to a much simpler victory. She never faced a break point until serving while trailing 5-4 in the second set.

That’s when things shifted.

Rogers earned three break points — each one a set point — and converted the third when Williams dumped a forehand into the net.

There were no breaks in the third set, and after Williams took the early lead in the tiebreaker, she was her own undoing with miss after miss, including a long backhand return to end it.

“I kind of made it difficult for myself by making a plethora of unforced errors,” Williams said.

With social-distancing rules in place, the players didn’t meet at the net for the customary post-match handshake. As they headed to their sideline seats, Williams smiled. Rogers simply sat down and quickly shook a fist.

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.