Virus again slashes French Open crowd sizes; now only 1,000

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PARIS — With only one week separating the end of one and the start of the other, the Tour de France and the French Open were shaping up as a double bill of sports entertainment, with masked but nevertheless live crowds, that would bear out President Emmanuel Macron’s arguments that the country can live with the coronavirus.

The virus, however, had different ideas.

Whereas the three-week Tour reached Paris last Sunday having pulled off the coup of getting through the country’s worsening epidemic without any virus positives among its 176 riders, the French Open isn’t proving so lucky with its timing.

Play is still scheduled to start Sunday, but as infections soar across France, organizers’ plans to have thousands of spectators there each day to cheer for Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and others have been drastically scaled back to allow just 1,000 daily visitors.

“Not the ideal situation. Nobody likes to play with these conditions, no?” 12-time French Open champion Nadal said Friday about having so few spectators. “Everybody wants to come back to the normal situation. But before that, we need to fix the most important thing, and that is the worldwide health that today is still under big problems.”

Last Sunday, tournament director Guy Forget had appeared in an upbeat mood on French TV with the exhausted-looking Tour director, who tested positive himself during the race and hadn’t been sure it would get to Paris. Forget congratulated him for the cycling roadshow that drew smaller but still sizable and enthusiastic crowds, and looked forward to welcoming 5,000 spectators per day at Roland Garros. Although postponed from their usual slots in May, June and July, both events decided not to cancel, unlike many others as the virus spread across the globe.

“Thanks to the Tour, thanks to tennis, sports are resuming again,” Forget said. “We want to experience beautiful emotions.

“If it’s 5,000 spectators, that’s better than nothing,” he added. “We see the glass half full.”

Less so now.

On Thursday, hours after the tennis tournament carried out a socially distanced electronic draw, with no players present, France’s prime minister announced that new crowd-size limits introduced this week in Paris and other cities would also apply to Roland Garros.

His office confirmed Friday that only 1,000 spectators will be allowed each day. Three weeks ago, the tournament had still been planning for 11,500, divided between its Philippe Chatrier, Suzanne Lenglen and Simonne Mathieu arenas. That was then cut last week to 5,000 and now to 1,000.

Tickets will be refunded “with a bit of heartache because we are convinced that we would have been able to welcome the 5,000 people in question who we had been counting on,” Forget said Friday on Franceinfo radio.

“It’s a bit of a tough blow,” he said. “Unfortunately, that is the way it is.”

France reported more than 16,000 new cases on Thursday alone, a new daily high, in part because of ramped-up testing. New influxes of sick patients are putting mounting pressure on hospital ICU units.

When the Tour set off in late August, the daily number of new cases had yet to cross the 10,000-mark and the government wasn’t facing the same intense criticism it’s dealing with now, particularly from the southern city of Marseille. Its inhabitants, facing even stricter limits than other cities, likely would have been infuriated had Roland Garros been allowed to disregard the 1,000-people limit enforced this week on Paris and elsewhere.

The lucky few remaining spectators will include 750 ticket holders, drawn by lottery, with the rest either sponsors’ guests or VIPs.

French tennis player Gael Monfils called the reduced number of fans “sad news.”

Tournament organizers have also been drawn into a spat over their virus testing regime with the coach of a virus-excluded player.

Petar Popovic says he is filing a case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport over the withdrawal of Damir Dzumhur, a former top-30 player from Bosnia now ranked 114th. They traveled to Paris for this week’s qualifying tournament but Dzumhur, despite testing negative, wasn’t included in the draw because Popovic failed his test and they had shared a hotel room.

Popovic said health arrangements meant to protect players were far from hermetic at the hotel near the Eiffel Tower where organizers housed them last week.

“There were Japanese air hostesses, even tourists from Japan and elsewhere,” Popovic told The Associated Press. “There were hotel guests unconnected with the tournament, who therefore aren’t tested, sharing the gym with us.”

Roland Garros organizers are subjecting players to multiple tests, which organizers say will be repeated every five days. Rather than make their own arrangements, players are being grouped in two hotels, on reserved floors, with some employees tested, too. Vehicles that are disinfected after each trip ferry players to Roland Garros. Players have been posting photos of the Eiffel Tower from inside their hotel bubbles.

So far, organizers have announced the virus-caused withdrawals of six players from qualifying – three who tested positive and three who they said were in close contact with their coach who tested positive. Organizers did not announce their names.

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.