Jessica Pegula into 1st Grand Slam quarterfinal

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MELBOURNE, Australia — After Jessica Pegula earned her first trip to a Grand Slam quarterfinal, the daughter of the owners of Buffalo’s NFL and NHL franchises scribbled on the screen of an Australian Open courtside TV camera: “Hi Mom, Hi Dad. See u next rnd Jen B.”

In addition to a shoutout to her parents, that was a message for Jennifer Brady, a good pal of Pegula’s whose fourth-round match was up next in Rod Laver Arena on Monday.

And after Brady won, too, setting up an all-American matchup against Pegula with a berth in the final four at stake, she used a blue marker to respond in kind, writing: “Bring it Jess!”

“It’s an opportunity for both of us,” Pegula said, recalling that she and Brady became close after playing doubles together for the United States in the team competition now known as the Billie Jean King Cup. “I’m just happy I’m here; she’s been playing some good tennis, solidifying herself as a top player.”

The 61st-ranked Pegula beat No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, before the 22nd-seeded Brady, a Pennsylvanian who played college tennis at UCLA, had a 6-1, 7-5 victory over No. 28 Donna Vekic of Croatia.

Brady was one of the 72 players who had to go through a hard lockdown – two weeks stuck in a hotel room, not allowed to leave for any reason – after flying to Australia in January because someone on their flight tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival.

“A lot of people were complaining, and I told myself I wasn’t going to complain,” Brady said. “I mean, there’s way worse things going on in the world than me being stuck in a hotel room for 14 days.”

Brady and Pegula gave the U.S. three women’s quarterfinalists at Melbourne Park, joining 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who advanced a day earlier.

Top-ranked Ash Barty ensured a fourth American didn’t make it to the last eight, beating unseeded Shelby Rogers 6-3, 6-4 to set up a quarterfinal against No. 25 Karolina Muchova.

“I mean, it’s pretty awesome to see. I hope we can all push through,” Pegula said. “The last, I don’t know, year or so, we’ve really all pushed each other. Maybe we haven’t said it to each other, but I think we all can feel it.”

She is on quite a breakthrough run.

Pegula has won four matches at Melbourne Park over the past week – including victories over two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur – after entering the hard-court tournament with a total of three wins at majors for her career.

Also significant for Pegula, who works with Venus Williams’ former coach, David Witt: She came into the day with an 0-6 record against top 10 women.

Witt said Pegula’s rising confidence is a big part of her progress. She found a sort of kinship with her family’s football team, the Bills, who made the playoffs three of the past four seasons behind quarterback Josh Allen after going nearly two decades without a trip to the postseason.

“Even last year, when he wasn’t playing that well, I was like, `I like this kid.’ I loved his competitive spirit. He was a gamer. He just wanted to win. That’s something you love to see,” she said about Allen. “It’s definitely something I think I tried to take into my game a little bit, even watching the team getting that grit, that competitive attitude, having that mindset – in tennis, it’s like 90%, sometimes, of the matches. I think it’s been really cool to watch them and kind of channel that energy into how I’ve been doing.”

Brady’s progress is far less surprising, given that she made it to the semifinals at the U.S. Open in September before losing to eventual champion Naomi Osaka.

Vekic’s right knee was heavily taped by a trainer early in the second set, which eventually got to 5-all. But Brady broke at love there when Vekic double-faulted, then held for the victory.

There will be a one-nation men’s quarterfinal, too, between Russians Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev. Medvedev, the 2019 U.S. Open runner-up, eliminated 192nd-ranked American Mackenzie McDonald 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 in 1 1/2 hours, while Rublev moved on when No. 22 Casper Ruud stopped because of an injury after dropping the first two sets.

A third Russian man, 114th-ranked qualifier Aslan Karatsev, already had advanced, giving the country a trio of quarterfinalists at a major tournament for the only time in the professional era.

Also on that half of the draw, Rafael Nadal moved closer to a men’s-record 21st Grand Slam trophy by overwhelming No. 16 Fabio Fognini 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Nadal’s next opponent will be No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, whose fourth-round match was canceled when No. 9 Matteo Berrettini withdrew because of an abdominal injury.

With the sky blue and temperatures in the low 70s Fahrenheit (low 20s Celsius), and no fans in the stands for the third day in a row because of a local COVID-19 lockdown, Pegula dictated groundstroke exchanges from right along the baseline.

In the early going, she pushed around two-time Grand Slam semifinalist Svitolina, who eliminated American teenager Coco Gauff in the second round, and went up by a set and a break at 1-0 in the second.

After Svitolina forced a third, Pegula returned to her more aggressive brand of hit-to-the-corners play and led 4-1. She was broken to 4-3, but broke right back, then served out the most important victory of her career by grabbing the last four points after falling behind love-30.

Now it’ll be Brady vs. Pegula.

“I’m super excited for her making her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. I know the emotions that she’s feeling. You feel like you’re on cloud nine, definitely,” Brady said. “We both know each other so well and I’m really looking forward to it. It will be a lot of fun. I think everyone back home in America will be watching, definitely.”

Aryna Sabalenka wins 1st Grand Slam title at Australian Open

2023 Australian Open - Day 13
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MELBOURNE, Australia – One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself – and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.’ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

“I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions,” she said, “and win this one.”

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy – she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check – she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now – is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph (195 kph), Sabalenka’s at 119 mph (192 kph).

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”

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.”