Krejcikova and Ram win 2nd Australian Open title in 3 years

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Barbora Krejcikova and Rajeev Ram have made the perfect odd-year pairing at the Australian Open, adding the 2021 mixed doubles title to the one they shared in 2019.

For Krejcikova, it’s three in a row.

She and Ram were in control from the start in a 6-1, 6-4 win Saturday over Australian wild cards Matt Ebden and Sam Stosur.

It was a remarkable run, particularly considering Krejcikova and Ram were among the 72 players forced into a hard lockdown for at least two weeks during quarantine after passengers on their charter flights tested positive to COVID-19 after arriving in Australia.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Krejcikova said. “I’m so grateful that we were able to get back together.”

Krejcikova won her first Australian title with Ram two years ago and with Croatia’s Nikola Mektic last year.

“We had a year off as a team, but she didn’t have a year off – she won this thing last year, so that’s three years running for her,” Ram said. “Amazing job. Pleasure to play with her, always.”

It was a virus that temporarily broke up the successful partnership a month prior to the 2020 Australian Open.

“I was sick here in December that year and I didn’t think it was a good idea to try to play mixed doubles as well,” said Ram, who won the men’s doubles title last year with Joe Salisbury.

That puts the veteran American in contention for a doubles double at Melbourne Park. Ram and Salisbury will be trying to defend the doubles title in Sunday’s final against Croatia’s Ivan Dodig and Slovakia’s Filip Polasek.

Krejcikova missed her chance at a double when she and fellow Czech Katerina Siniakova lost the women’s doubles final on Friday to second-seeded Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka.

She said she put that out of her mind as soon as possible, aiming for another title.

Krejcikova and Ram faced only a single break point and needed less than an hour to beat Ebden and Stosur, who were each previous winners of the title but with different partners.

The Australians didn’t win a game until Ebden held in the fifth, and lost the first set in just 22 minutes.

Fans, who had stayed after Naomi Osaka’s win over Jennifer Brady in the women’s singles final hoping to witness a home Slam triumph, vocally tried to lift Ebden and Stosur. But it was to no avail.

Krejcikova said her partnership with Ram works because of their approach to the game.

“I just feel we understand each other on and off the court,” she said. “He’s just really easygoing and it works out.”

Krejcikova and Ram kept in touch during the quarantine period, when they weren’t allowed to leave their rooms for any reason. All but the 72 players in hard lockdown were allowed out for up to five hours per day for practice during the mandatory 14-day quarantine.

“It’s really amazing what we actually achieved,” Krejcikova said. “I just feel really grateful and happy that even, you know, we had to go for this hard quarantine and stuff, it just worked out well and maybe that was the key to win the tournament … like, who knows?”

Ram said he spent time in the lockdown checking in with friends because it was “obviously a tough situation.”

His approach after coming out of lockdown was simple.

“Don’t overdo it,” he said. “I have played tennis for – I’m 36, I played tennis for 34 years – I’m not going to forget how to do it in 14 days.

“It was just a matter of trying to make sure that physically and mentally you feel like you’re in the right spot.”

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.”

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.