Zverev, Osaka reach semifinals at U.S. Open

Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK — The disqualification of Novak Djokovic from the U.S. Open, and the absences of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, presented quite an opportunity to Alexander Zverev and the other men left in the tournament – all in their 20s, all seeking a first Grand Slam title.

Who would falter? Who would rise to the occasion? Done in by double-faults and bothered by an officiating decision, Zverev stumbled at the start of Tuesday’s quarterfinal against Borna Coric. Then, suddenly, Zverev soared.

Down a set and a break early, then so close to trailing by two sets to one, Zverev grabbed 14 of 15 points in a pivotal stretch on the way to earning his first semifinal berth at Flushing Meadows with a 1-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 6-3 victory over Coric.

“The Novak news shocked us all,” Zverev said, “and obviously for us younger guys, we see that as a massive opportunity. But we have to put our head down and do our job.”

It was a scratchy contest – both men generated more unforced errors than winners through two sets, and Zverev finished with 12 double-faults – and the winner acknowledged afterward that the way he played at the outset was “not the level for the quarterfinal match in a Grand Slam.”

The 27th-seeded Coric’s take: “I felt like I was in charge of the match. I saw he was struggling, not playing his best tennis.”

But Zverev got more aggressive as things went on, including essentially hitting two first serves instead of a softer, slower second following a fault, and that helped lift him to his second consecutive major semifinal, after getting that far at this year’s Australian Open.

“I don’t want to stop here,” the 6-foot-6 Zverev said.

Next for the 23-year-old from Germany will be a match against No. 20 Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain, who edged No. 12 Denis Shapovalov of Canada 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 0-6, 6-3 in a marathon that ended at after 1 a.m. Wednesday.

“I’m destroyed,” Carreno Busta said after the four-plus-hour match, “but I’m very, very happy.”

It was Carreno Busta who was the beneficiary when Djokovic was defaulted from their fourth-round match for hitting a ball that accidentally hit a line judge in the throat after a game.

The men’s quarterfinals Wednesday: Dominic Thiem vs. Alex de Minaur, and Daniil Medvedev vs. Andrey Rublev.

In women’s action Tuesday, two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka set up a semifinal against 28th-seeded Jennifer Brady, a 25-year-old from Pennsylvania who’s never been this far at a major tournament.

Osaka, the former No. 1-ranked played who won the U.S. Open two years ago, played far cleaner tennis than her opponent in a 6-3, 6-4 win over 93rd-ranked Shelby Rogers at night.

Rogers finished with 27 unforced errors, Osaka with eight.

Earlier, Brady defeated No. 23 seed Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan 6-3, 6-2.

“I came out with nerves. I think she did, too,” Brady said. “I just tried to pretend it was a first-round match.”

It’s been quite a surge for Brady, whose big serve and forehand have carried her to an 11-1 record since tennis returned from its pandemic hiatus.

Her ranking was low enough at the start of 2020 that she needed to go through qualifying to get into a tournament’s main draw.

“There were a lot of doubts, a lot of questions. Definitely not positive thoughts during those times,” said Brady, who helped UCLA win an NCAA title. “But I think I’m pretty lucky to have just stuck to it and just really continue to just play and practice and compete and get better. Here I am today.”

Wednesday’s women’s quarterfinals are Serena Williams vs. Tsvetana Pironkova, and Victoria Azarenka vs. Elise Mertens.

Zverev has been considered an up-and-coming talent to watch for a few years now but had never quite put it together at Grand Slam tournament until this year.

And Tuesday, he was dealing with a lot.

There were his own double-fault demons – nothing new, but disconcerting all the same – that appeared just 10 minutes into the match, when a trio of those free points contributed to Coric breaking to lead 3-1.

There was his argument with chair umpire Eva Asderaki-Moore early in the second set about her decision to replay a point after an incorrect call robbed Zverev of a point.

There was his gripe with ESPN courtside commentator Brad Gilbert, whose reports on live TV in an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium bothered Zverev enough that he told the former player and coach: “You’re talking too loud, man. … I can hear every single word you’re saying.”

There were all of Coric’s trips off the court to change out of his sweat-soaked clothes.

“Sometimes not playing your best and finding a way is more important than playing your best,” Zverev said.

Most troubling of all: the holes in which Zverev kept finding himself.

The key juncture was with Zverev serving at 15-30 while down 6-5 in the third set. Two more points, and that set would belong to Coric.

But Zverev won the next three points with a backhand passing shot, an overhead and a 135 mph service winner to get to a tiebreaker, then dominated that, too, before opening the fourth set by holding at love.

“Huge point,” Zverev said. “But this is what I’ve been doing the past six months. I’ve been in the gym. I’ve been on the track. … This is the moment where it pays off.”

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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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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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.