2 COVID-19 cases at Australian Open qualifying event in Doha

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Two players have been withdrawn from Australian Open qualifying tournament in Doha, Qatar and put into hotel quarantine after returning positive tests for COVID-19.

American Denis Kudla, seeded No. 4 in the qualifying event which is being held outside of Australia for the first time, was withdrawn following a 6-4, 6-3 first-round win over Elliot Benchetrit of Morocco on Monday. Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina beat Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain 6-2, 6-4 before he was withdrawn.

Tennis Australia confirmed in a statement there’d been two positive tests at the tournament and both men had been transferred to a government-run medi-hotel, where strict quarantine procedures were in place.

“Local health authorities, the tournament physician and medical team are monitoring each individual. Contact tracing is currently underway to notify close contacts,” the statement said.

The withdrawals mean Australian wildcard entry Dane Sweeny and Mario Vilella Martinez of Spain get walkovers into the third round of qualifying.

Australian media reported that match officials were made aware of Kudla’s positive test while the American was leading 5-3 in the second set, but planned to wait until the regulation change of ends following the subsequent game to notify both players.

Kudla broke serve to win the match, meaning both he and Benchetrit were out of the tournament. If there hadn’t been a break of serve at that time, the match would have been stopped after the ninth game of the second set and No. 221-ranked Benchetrit would have advanced to the next round.

Australian Open organizers said all players who started in the qualifying tournament had returned at least one negative test after arriving into Doha, where they were tested on arrival and isolated until they returned a negative result.

The players and their teams are also being tested every four days during the event and, if there’s a positive case, Qatari health authorities must inform the tournament in writing.

The Australian Open has already been delayed by three weeks and is now scheduled to start Feb. 8 because of travel restrictions and quarantine arrangements in place for the COVID-19 pandemic.

All players arriving in Australia will be tested on arrival and must isolate until they receive a negative test result. Then they’ll be required to undergo a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine which will involve daily testing for the coronavirus.

The season-opening major is usually held in the last two weeks of January to coincide with the end of the holidays in the southern summer.

Players will start arriving in Australia on 15 charter flights later this week. A small group of players will quarantine in Adelaide. The remainder of the roughly 1,200 players, entourage, support staff and officials arriving from abroad set to quarantine in one of three Melbourne hotels inside a so-called bio-security that will allow them to leave the hotel to work out in dedicated practice facilities for up to five hours per day.

An exhibition event featuring Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will be played as a once-off curtain raiser in Adelaide, South Australia state, on Jan. 29.

A 12-team ATP Cup is among the two men’s tournaments and two women’s tournaments that will be staged at Melbourne Park from Feb. 1-6 for players to prepare for the Australian Open.

Australian authorities have warned players of strict penalties, including possible criminal charges, for breaches of quarantine regulations.

Once participants have completed quarantine, they will no longer be subjected to mandatory coronavirus testing, unless they display symptoms. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will be returned to quarantine.

Victoria state’s Police and Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said authorities were working on the assumption that “every single tennis player that arrives … has the potential to be positive.”

“Our program has been designed around that potential and how we ensure that, if there is a positive case, that there is no risk to the Victorian community,” Neville said. “We have put in place the strongest and strictest rules that apply for tennis across the world.”

Victoria state has accounted for 820 of Australia’s 909 deaths attributed to COVID-19, and the capital Melbourne was locked down for months during an outbreak last year.

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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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.