Venus Williams gets to decide when she leaves

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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The questions about Venus Williams’ future have been accumulating for a while now, some subtle, some less so.

About whether she’ll be back at a particular event. About whether she’ll stick around for the following season.

About her passion for tennis. About her motivation at age 40. About other players who recently retired or were about to retire.

The bottom line, essentially, was this: As Williams accrued more and more early exits at Grand Slam tournaments – and, well, other tournaments, too – how much longer would she keep playing professional tennis? But there is another bottom line and it is this: It’s really up to just one person to decide why and how long Williams will keep going.

Williams, of course.

And after going 0-3 at the sport’s major championships in 2020, and 1-8 overall during the pandemic-shortened season, Williams began the 2021 Grand Slam season with the best sort of answer to all of those questions. She won.

Starting her 21st Australian Open and professional-era record 88th appearance at all Slams, Williams beat Kirsten Flipkens 7-5, 6-2 on Monday. That set up a second-round meeting Wednesday with Sara Errani, a 33-year-old from Italy who was a French Open runner-up and U.S. Open semifinalist in 2012 and is now ranked 134th.

“I’m trying to get better every day. I think that, no matter what happens to you in life, you always hold your head up high. You give a hundred, million percent,” Williams said after compiling 10 break points and facing merely one against Flipkens. “That’s what I do every single day. That’s something that I can be proud of.”

Williams went out on court with wide strips of beige athletic tape on her left knee, protection that looked something like an asterisk.

Asked about it by a TV reporter afterward, Williams deflected the query with a joke about “decoration” and a smile. She looked just fine in the match, those long strides carrying her along the baseline, just as they have against so many opponents over so many years.

“I feel like whenever I see her, it’s really amazing just to watch, like, how much she loves tennis. I see her smiling so much nowadays, so it’s really nice to see. She just has this aura of loving the sport and this infectious energy,” three-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka said. “I hope that I can learn a lot from her.”

Truth be told, anyone could. About perspective. About perseverance. About grace.

Williams is someone who owns seven Grand Slam titles in singles – five at Wimbledon, two at the U.S. Open – and another 14 in doubles with her sister Serena.

She’s someone who reached nine other major singles finals that she lost (seven of those against Serena, part of the most remarkable sibling rivalry in sports history).

Someone who has won four Olympic gold medals.

Someone who has been ranked No. 1 (and currently is No. 81).

And so on and so forth.

Plus, someone who years ago needed to learn to live with an energy-sapping auto-immune disease.

“She’s such an inspiration, because she never gets frustrated about her situation, health-wise. She’s always looking on the bright side,” Serena said after her own lopsided first-round win at Melbourne Park on Monday.

“Then she works so hard. Yeah, she’s been great. We were hitting partners for the first two weeks, 2+ weeks, since we were here in Australia. It was so good to train with her. It was so good every day,” Serena added. “It’s also very inspiring because she still pushes me on a level that no one’s able to push me, so it was incredibly helpful.”

When the older Williams met with the media, the second question she received was about whether her age is “front of mind” for her while competing these days.

Williams volleyed right back, creating this exchange:

“Would it be front of mind for you, if you were playing a professional tennis match?”

“Not necessarily.”

“There you go.”

Another well-played riposte from Williams.

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.