Novak Djokovic advances to 3rd round at French Open

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PARIS — At the mere mention of Novak Djokovic’s name, at the mere thought of sharing a court with a 17-time Grand Slam champion and the French Open’s No. 1-seeded man, Daniel Elahi Galan broke into a wide smile Thursday.

He used these phrases: “really, really excited” and “really, really happy” and “really, really special.”

Galan is, after all, ranked 153rd and never had won so much as one main-draw match at any major tournament until this week. Making this run to the third round even more improbable: The 24-year-old from Colombia lost in qualifying at Roland Garros and only got into the bracket when other men withdrew from the field.

So, sure, it was a big deal for Galan to beat Tennys Sandgren 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 on Thursday. And, to be sure, a bigger deal to contemplate Saturday, when he will face Djokovic, who has dropped a total of 10 games through two matches so far after overwhelming Ricardas Berankis 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 — and is someone Galan has spotted in the locker room but never spoken to.

It’s the sort of David vs. Goliath matchup that happens often in tennis but is in particular abundance this year in Paris.

Galan is one of nine men ranked outside the top 100 into the third round, equaling the most at any Grand Slam tournament in more than a quarter-century (Wimbledon in 1994); the last time there were as many as nine at Roland Garros was 1985.

There were some unfair-on-paper matchups established Thursday by the women, too.

Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, who is seeded fourth, will face 105th-ranked qualifier Irina Bara. Two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova next meets 100th-ranked Canadian teen Leylah Fernandez. Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open champ, plays 87th-ranked Paula Badosa, who arrived in Paris with a 1-5 Grand Slam record.

“I have a very complex game. I can do many things on court,” said Bara, who is making her Grand Slam debut, “and I hope I will bother her with that.”

Maybe all of the success for those who haven’t done it before is due to this being as unusual a French Open as there’s ever been: shifted from May-June to September-October because of the coronavirus pandemic; from its position deep in the European clay-court circuit to two weeks after the hard-court U.S. Open’s conclusion; played amid autumn’s cold temperatures and rain, although the sun and blue sky made appearances Thursday; just 1,000 spectators allowed on-site each day.

Whatever the case, it’s instructive to remember that occasionally, of course, the stone finds its mark.

Which perhaps is why this was Galan’s philosophy as he looked ahead: “Just try to win. Just give it all you have. And that’s it. At the end of the day, it’s just another match.”

So the obvious question: How do you, as the owner of two career Grand Slam match victories, maintain sufficient self-belief and hope ahead of facing Djokovic, whose 292 wins at majors include 70 at the French Open alone?

“Well,” came Galan’s reply, “I was wondering that, to be honest.”

And then he launched into a story about how he was “really, really nervous” before playing former top 10-member David Goffin in the Davis Cup Finals last November.

“He is Goffin, a guy you see on TV all the time. And I just went on the court and I was just expecting him to play unbelievable and maybe he will beat me so easy,” Galan recalled. “But at the end of the day, they are, like, human. They also make mistakes. And also they get mad. They are also trying the best they can. And that’s it.”

Which sounded inspiring and meaningful … until a quick inspection of the result revealed that he lost to Goffin.

At least Galan has this going for him: For as much as he has been able to study Djokovic over the years — “A lot; a lot; he’s always on TV; always on the center court; always in the finals” — the reverse is not the case.

“I don’t know much about him, to be honest. I have never seen him play, so I’ll have to obviously look at his matches, the videos, and try to prepare myself with my team,” said Djokovic, who won the French Open in 2016 to complete his career Grand Slam.

“He doesn’t have much to lose,” said Djokovic, who does not lose too much, 33-1 thus far in 2020. “It’s always dangerous facing opponents you never faced before. On the big stadium, they can really relax and play their best tennis of their lives. Or it can go a different way. I have to be alert and prepare myself well.”

The 66th-ranked Berankis, now 0-3 against Djokovic, was asked what advice he would offer Galan.

Instead of discussing any strategic tips, Berankis mentioned mindset.

“With such a great, huge player, you know, ATP No. 1, having crazy amount of Grand Slams in his pocket, ATP tournaments — like one of the best ever — the advice would be not to play the results that he has. Just play the player who is on the court,” Berankis said. “From my own experience … the most important is how you can perform during this day, not what happened in last 10, 15 years with your opponent, you know? So, yeah, (don’t) panic. Play your game. And see how it goes.”

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.