Serena Williams into semis against Barty in Aussie tuneup

Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Most things about this week leading into a major are different for Serena Williams.

The 23-time Grand Slam champion got to try something new Friday, too, needing a match tiebreaker to beat fellow American Danielle Collins 6-2, 4-6, 10-6 and set up a semifinal against top-ranked Ash Barty in the Yarra River Classic.

“I felt good to get through that in a tiebreaker,” Williams said. “Definitely different.”

Even more different is that Williams doesn’t usually play in the week before a major.

That’s been the theme for this Australian Open, which was delayed three weeks so that all players and their entourages could spend 14 days in hotel quarantine under the strict regulations in place for the COVID-19 pandemic.

A day after all matches in six tournaments were postponed so that 160 players could isolate and undergo testing because a worker at a quarantine hotel returned a positive test, there were 70 matches on the order of play as organizers tried to cram all scheduled lead-in matches into three days. The Australian Open starts Monday.

Barty also got her first taste of the modified scoring system introduced to shorten matches in a disrupted schedule, dominating a match tiebreaker to beat Shelby Rogers 7-5, 2-6, 10-4.

In a reverse of the result of last year’s Australian Open final, Garbine Muguruza beat Sofia Kenin 6-2, 6-2 to advance to the semifinals. Kenin beat Muguruza in the 2020 final in three sets, including by 6-2 scores in the final two sets.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley did a radio interview before play started and announced that 507 people with connections to the tournament quarantine hub test had been tested and 495 had already returned negative tests for the coronavirus. He said results for 12 people were pending.

Play was halted as a precaution after a quarantine worker tested positive this week, days after his last shift at the hotel, and all players and tournament-related people at the Grand Hyatt were regarded as casual contacts. State health authorities on Friday said there were no further cases of community transmission in the previous 24 hours..

To speed things up a little, 17 courts were being used and women’s matches were reduced to two regular sets with a 10-point match tiebreaker if required.

Barty opened proceedings on Margaret Court Arena and after some up-and-down form in the first two sets, she raced to a 6-1 lead in the match tiebreaker and finished the tiebreaker off in 12 minutes.

“A bit of an unusual scoring system for us,” Barty said. “Happy to get through and have another chance tomorrow.”

“It’s the challenge, regardless of what conditions you’re dealt with,” she said of the situation so close to the year’s first major.

AZARENKA ADVANCES

Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka beat Yulia Putintseva 6-4, 1-6, 11-9 to advance at the Grampians Trophy, an event staged for the players forced into hard lockdown during quarantine.

Sorana Cirstea upset Belinda Bencic, the highest-ranked player in the tournament, 7-5, 6-2 before a clap of thunder and a rain shower suspended play on outside courts.

SPAIN INTO SEMIS

Pablo Carreno Busta clinched Spain a spot in the ATP Cup semifinals with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Michail Pervolarakis in the opening singles match against Greece. The win ensured Spain had enough points to top Group B, which also includes Australia.

No. 2-ranked Rafael Nadal was skipping the encounter against Greece to give his sore back more time to rest, leaving No. 16-ranked Carreno Busta and No. 13-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut again to fill the singles spots.

“I knew we needed this point,” Carreno Busta said in his on-court interview. “With this victory, we are into the semifinals, so it was very important to us.”

Greece rallied for 2-1 win over Spain, with Stefanos Tsitsipas beating Roberto Bautista 7-5, 7-5 and then combining with Pervolarakis in the deciding doubles match – which lasted only one game before the Spanish pair retired.

In other ATP Cup matches, defending champion Serbia and Germany were 1-1 after Novak Djokovic edged Alexander Zverev in the second singles match. The winner of the doubles will finish atop Group A and reach the semifinals.

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.