Djokovic holds off Tiafoe at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Frances Tiafoe had never played a No. 1, had never beaten anyone in the Top 5, and now he’d just won a tiebreaker against Novak Djokovic to level their second-round match at the Australian Open.

He nodded and motioned for more noise before plonking down in his courtside chair and saying what everyone watching already knew: “I love this. … I love it!”

That lasted right up until the pivotal moment in the fourth set, serving at 3-all, 30-all, when he walked to the side of the court to get a towel, dry his face, and didn’t resume play before the countdown clock ran out. He was given a time violation by the chair umpire, and docked a serve.

He lost that game, and didn’t win another.

The 23-year-old American, quarterfinalist here two years ago, threw everything he could at Djokovic. But it wasn’t quite enough to beat the eight-time Australian Open champion, who won the 3 1/2-hour afternoon match 6-3, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (2), 6-3.

“I felt like that kind of broke the match, honestly,” Tiafoe said. “And he ran off with it.

“Hats off to him, but that was a terrible ending to the match, to such a high-quality match.”

Tiafoe shook his head after finishing the match with a double-fault, then jogged to the net to embrace Djokovic. He’ll take plenty from this. He said he knows he can compete at this level.

“He pushed me to the very limit,” Djokovic said. “He’s a very quick player. It’s unpredictable what comes next … I’m really glad to overcome such a battle.”

Djokovic served 26 aces, Tiafoe 23. Djokovic had the edge in terms of winners (56-49).

After assessing the stats, Djokovic said he couldn’t remember serving more aces, or seeing more serves pass him, in a match in a long time.

“Credit to him,” the 17-time major winner said, “for forcing me to feel uncomfortable.”

Djokovic also agreed in his on-court, post-match interview that Tiafoe got a tough call. It was hot and sunny – the temperature peaked at 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) – and Tiafoe had just lost a long rally.

“Those kinds of things are just unlucky,” Djokovic said. “He deserved to have the first serve.”

Tiafoe later said he was glad Djokovic acknowledged it, but he still thinks there needs to be “conversations” about allowing more time between points while COVID-19 pandemic restrictions mean ballkids can’t hold the towels for players.

“Could I have handled it better? Yes,” Tiafoe said, answering his own question. “Yeah, I mean, that just broke me. I’m out there battling world No. 1, and like he needs any more help, you know.”

Djokovic will play another American in the third round after No. 27-seeded Taylor Fritz who held off Reilly Opelka 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-2.

Dominic Thiem, who lost the final last year to Djokovic but went one better to win the U.S. Open, took a short route to the third round with a 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 win over Donimik Koepfer and will next play unpredictable Australian Nick Kyrgios.

Another U.S. Open champion, Naomi Osaka, needed only an hour to sweep Caroline Garcia 6-2, 6-3.

Serena Williams kept her bid for a 24th Grand Slam singles title on track, making only 11 unforced errors as she defeated Nina Stojanovic 6-3, 6-0.

But a 21st trip to Melbourne Park ended painfully for her older sister, Venus Williams.

The 40-year-old Williams, a seven-time major winner making her 88th Grand Slam main draw appearance, was down 5-1 in the opening set against Sara Errani when she landed awkwardly on her ankle as she approached the net for a volley. She fought back tears before receiving treatment on the ankle, and gamely continued, hobbling between points, before losing 6-1, 6-0.

Two top 10 players went out of the women’s draw: 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu, coming back from 15 months out with injury, was beaten by Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan and ninth-seeded Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion and the 2019 Australian Open runner-up, lost to Sorana Cirstea

“It’s strange,” Hsieh, who is ranked 71st and has a history of inconsistency, explained of her 8-2 record against top 10 players. “I normally feel more excited to play with better players.

Second-seeded Simona Halep narrowly averted an early exit, rallying from 5-2 down in the third set to beat No. 72 Ajla Tomljanovic 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.

French Open champion Iga Swiatek, seventh-seeded Aryna Sabalenka and 2020 Australian Open runner-up Garbine Muguruza all advanced, along with Ann Li, a 20-year-old American who beat Alize Cornet 6-2, 7-6 (6).

No. 11 Denis Shapovalov, No. 14 Milos Raonic and No. 20 Felix Auger-Aliassime all advanced, keeping Canadian interest alive, and sixth-seeded Alexander Zverev completed the night session on Rod Laver with a 7-5, 6-4, 6-3 win over American qualifier Maxime Cressy.

Crowd numbers lifted on a nice, sunny day, hitting 19,900 across day and night sessions – a maximum of 30,000, or roughly 50% of capacity, are allowed through Melbourne Park under COVID-19 restrictions.

There were thousands in John Cain Arena, known by Kyrgios and his fans as the Peoples’ Court, to watch the mercurial Aussie save two match points before beating No. 29 Ugo Humbert 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 in a rollicking night cap full of turns and twists.

“I don’t know how I did that, honestly,” Kyrgios said, thanking the parochial, vocal crowd. “It’s one of the craziest matches I’ve ever played.”

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.