Pushed to the limit, Djokovic finds a way to win in Rome

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ROME — Novak Djokovic was being pushed so hard in the first set by Filip Krajinovic that he urgently needed somewhere to sit down and catch his breath.

Since it was 5-5 and not time for a changeover, he plopped down on one of the new boxes installed behind the court for players’ towels – which are there because ball kids are no longer providing towel service amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It would take Djokovic quite a bit more work before he finally closed out the first set in 1 hour, 28 minutes and went on to finish off a 7-6 (7), 6-3 victory for a spot in the Italian Open quarterfinals for the 14th straight year on Friday.

“It was a great battle,” said Djokovic, who is playing his first tournament since being defaulted from the U.S. Open. “Definitely one of the longest sets I’ve ever played. We went toe to toe. It could have gone a different way.”

Nine-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal faced much less resistance in beating Dusan Lajovic 6-1, 6-3 in more pleasant evening conditions. His next opponent will be eighth-seeded Diego Schwartzman, who got past Hubert Hurkacz 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.

It’s Nadal’s first tournament in seven months after skipping the U.S. Open due to travel concerns amid the pandemic.

Earlier, with the temperature on Campo Centrale soaring to 32 degrees C (90 F), Djokovic said “we both struggled physically in that first set.”

The set was so close that the players won the same number of points – 61 – and Djokovic didn’t close it out until his fifth set point when Krajinovic’s forehand sailed long.

Shadows moved across the court in the second set.

“That allowed us to feel better,” Djokovic said. “But I’m very pleased with this first set. There were some very long rallies. This is what clay tennis is all about.”

Djokovic, a four-time Rome champion, will next play German qualifier Dominik Koepfer, who beat 18-year-old Italian Lorenzo Musetti 6-4, 6-0.

Also at the Foro Italico, 15th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov ended the run of Italian teenager Jannik Sinner by 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Sinner, who beat third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in the previous round, missed an easy overhead smash into the net on Dimitrov’s fifth match point.

“A loss like that hurts. But I’ll try to take the positive aspects out of it,” Sinner said. “That wasn’t the end I wanted.”

Dimitrov’s quarterfinal opponent will be Denis Shapovalov, who rallied past Ugo Humbert 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-4.

Matteo Berrettini, the big-serving Roman who reached last year’s U.S. Open semifinals, beat Stefano Travaglia 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1). He’ll next meet Casper Ruud, who defeated Marin Cilic 6-2, 7-6 (6).

In the women’s draw, top-seeded Simona Halep improved to 7-0 in tennis’ restart after defeating Dayana Yastremska 7-5, 6-4.

Halep, who is actually on an 11-0 run overall stretching back to February, recovered an early break in the opening set and then overpowered her 29th-ranked opponent.

“It gives me confidence that even in these conditions with a big hitter I could win in two sets,” Halep said.

Halep, who lost two straight finals in Rome to Elina Svitolina in 2017 and 2018, will next face 10th-seeded Elena Rybakina, who overcame Yulia Putintseva 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-2.

U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka advanced when Daria Kasatkina retired injured at 6-6 in the first set after she got her right foot caught on a line and fell. Azarenka next plays Garbine Muguruza, who beat last year’s finalist, Johanna Konta, 6-4, 6-1.

Also, defending champion Karolina Pliskova defeated Russian qualifier Anna Blinkova 6-4, 6-3 and will next play Elise Mertens, who eliminated Montenegrin qualifier Danka Kovinic 6-4, 6-4.

The tournament has been played without fans so far because of the pandemic, although Italy’s sports minister said on Friday that up to 1,000 spectators will be allowed in to watch the semifinals and finals.

“It comes as a bit of surprise midway through,” Dimitrov said. “But there is a lot of things that we have control of and some things that we just got to go along with.”

The event was rescheduled from its usual slot in May because of the pandemic.

“I would have preferred to have fans from the start,” Berrettini said. “But 1,000 people isn’t a small number and they will make themselves heard.”

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.