Down but not out, Serena Williams into Australian Open QFs

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams tumbled to the ground, her heavily taped right ankle turning, her body contorting, her racket flying.

This was early in the second set of a competitive-as-can-be matchup in the Australian Open’s fourth round against a younger version of herself – stinging serves, huge groundstroke cuts, a fierce streak – and during a stretch Sunday (Saturday night EST) when things seemed to be slipping away.

Williams quickly put up a hand to indicate she was OK, retied the laces of her right shoe and, while it took her a bit to regain control, she did so, just in the nick of time. Grabbing the last two games, Williams pulled out 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 victory over No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka to reach the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park.

Two years ago at this tournament, Williams was on the verge of a quarterfinal win when she hurt her ankle and ended up losing.

“Well, my first thought was, `Not another ankle sprain in Australia.’ But I knew immediately that it wasn’t. Then I was more embarrassed than anything. I was like, `Oh, my goodness.’ I don’t like falling,” Williams said. “But I was fine. I mean, once I realized I didn’t twist my ankle, like at all, I was like, `OK, I’m good, let me just get up.”‘

Williams, who wore a black T-shirt with “Unstoppable Queen” in capital gold letters to her news conference, moved closer to an eighth Australian Open championship and record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title overall.

Her most recent came in 2017, while she was pregnant.

On a cloudy day with the temperature in the mid-60s Fahrenheit (high teens Celsius), both Williams and Sabalenka dismissed much in the way of subtlety or nuance.

“I was OK with it, really,” Williams said. “If she wants to play power, let’s go.”

These two hit the ball hard, over and over again in Rod Laver Arena, and Williams was barely better. She ended up with more winners, 30-24, and more aces, 9-4, while cranking up her best-in-the-game serve to as fast as 126 mph (202 kph).

When Williams needed to volley, she did, claiming 13 of 15 points when she went to the net. More importantly, she covered the court much in the way she did in her younger days, when opponents’ apparent winners were rendered mere fodder for her own strikes.

And she showed no signs of trouble from the left Achilles tendon that hampered her in a U.S. Open semifinal loss in September and forced her to withdraw from the French Open before the second round later that month.

“I’ve worked really hard on my movement. Yeah, I like retrieving balls. I mean, obviously I like to be on the offense, but I can play defense really well, as well,” the 39-year-old American said. “I didn’t think about my Achilles. It’s so good to not think about it. Oh, my goodness.”

Sabalenka – a 22-year-old from Belarus playing in only her second fourth-round Slam match – was visibly and audibly frustrated. She frequently would scream after lost points. She spiked her racket, too.

With the high quality of the match, the only shame was that no fans were there to see it in person. That’s because this was Day 2 of the five-day lockdown imposed by the Victoria state government after some COVID-19 cases emerged at a local hotel. (Any cheering or chatter TV viewers heard at home was being piped in to broadcasters’ feeds).

Williams now faces No. 2-ranked Simona Halep, a two-time major winner who beat French Open champion Iga Swiatek 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. The other quarterfinal on that half of the draw will be Naomi Osaka against unseeded 35-year-old Hsie Su-wei of Taiwan.

Eight-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic shrugged off a side muscle injury to beat Milos Raonic 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 in a night match and register his 300th win in a Grand Slam match.

Top-ranked Djokovic joined Roger Federer as the only men to achieve the milestone.

He hurt a stomach muscle when he fell during his third-round victory over Taylor Fritz and there were concerns he wouldn’t recover in time to play Raonic. But he competed fully for almost three hours. He was wearing tape above his right hip and later said if he wasn’t playing a major, he’d probably already have withdrawn from the event.

His quarterfinal will be against U.S. Open finalist Alexander Zverev, who beat No. 23-seeded Dusan Lajovic 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-3.

There were two significant surprises in men’s fourth-round action.

Dominic Thiem – the Australian Open runner-up and U.S. Open champion in 2020 – looked physically compromised in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-0 loss to three-time major semifinalist Grigor Dimitrov.

Even more unexpected: Dimitrov’s next opponent is Aslan Karatsev, a 27-year-old Russian qualifier who is ranked 114th and the first player since 1996 to reach the quarterfinals in his Grand Slam debut. Karatsev eliminated 20th-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime 3-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

Osaka barely advanced, saving two match points and grabbing the last four games to top Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.

The third-seeded Osaka returns to the quarterfinals of a tournament she won in 2019 for one of her three major trophies. Osaka ran her winning streak to 18 matches – a run that included a U.S. Open title in September.

“She’s playing great. Big shots, big serve,” Muguruza said. “That gives her a lot of free points.”

The key moment came when Osaka was serving at 15-40 while trailing 5-3 in the final set. Muguruza could not convert either chance to end things: Osaka delivered one of her 11 aces at 118 mph (191 kph) on the first; Muguruza missed a groundstroke on the second.

Fifteen minutes later, the match was over.

The 71st-ranked Hsieh’s 6-4, 6-2 victory over 2019 French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova made her the oldest woman to make her major quarterfinal debut in the professional era.

This is the 38th major for Hsieh, who beat 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu in the second round.

The secret to Hsieh’s success?

“I try to pretend,” she joked, “I’m only 18 years old.”

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.