Sakkari tops 2020 French champ Swiatek; 4 in 1st Slam SFs

Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports
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PARIS — When one last forehand from defending champion Iga Swiatek landed wide in the French Open quarterfinals, Maria Sakkari crouched on Court Philippe Chatrier and bowed her head, relishing the moment.

Sakkari is still two wins away from lifting the trophy, but her victory means she’s already in new territory – just like the other three women left in the draw.

Sakkari ended Swiatek’s 11-match and 22-set winning streaks at Roland Garros by beating her 6-4, 6-4 to guarantee that there will be a first-time Grand Slam champion when the tournament ends.

On Thursday, the 17th-seeded Sakkari plays unseeded Barbora Krejcikova in the semifinals, and No. 31 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova faces unseeded Tamara Zidansek. All four are making their Slam semifinal debuts.

“We are four very good players,” Sakkari said. “Players that can win a title, for sure.”

Krejcikova advanced Wednesday by eliminating 17-year-old Coco Gauff 7-6 (6), 6-3.

This is only the second time in the professional era that there has been four first-time semifinalists at any major tournament, according to the WTA. It also happened at the 1978 Australian Open.

In the men’s quarterfinals, 13-time champion Rafael Nadal’s streak of sets won at Roland Garros ended at 36 but he quickly recovered to defeat Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. Nadal’s semifinal foe will be No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who got past Matteo Berrettini 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in a night match delayed for more than 20 minutes in the fourth set while the stadium was cleared out because of a COVID-19 curfew.

Sakkari, who can become Greece’s first Grand Slam singles champion, and Krejcikova, who is from the Czech Republic, are both 25. Each has won only one tour-level title. Neither had been past the fourth round at a major until now.

Sakkari lost her first seven third-round Slam matches, which raised some doubts that have since been erased.

“I thought about it a lot of times – that maybe that was my ceiling, and I could not get any higher in the rankings, playing better in tournaments,” she said. “But this year I proved (to) myself that I’m actually playing really good.”

Both Sakkari and Krejcikova dealt with early deficits Wednesday.

Swiatek, a 20-year-old from Poland who has looked untouchable on clay, jumped out to a 2-0 lead. But then Sakkari took over, winning eight of 10 games. When Sakkari smacked a backhand winner down the line to close a 15-stroke point that claimed the first set, she leaned over and punched the air with her right fist.

That ended Swiatek’s set streak at Roland Garros, which dated to the beginning of last year’s tournament, when she dropped only 28 games in all. She’d only lost 20 games this year through four matches.

But Sakkari used clean strokes – accumulating 26 winners, nine more than her opponent – and a strategy of serving to Swiatek’s forehand to gain control.

“Obviously I know I can play better than today,” Swiatek said. “Everybody has seen that.”

Down 2-0 in the second set, Swiatek took a medical timeout and left the court with a trainer, returning with her upper right leg taped. During the break, Sakkari tried to stay warm by hopping and skipping side-to-side behind the baseline and did not lose a beat when play resumed.

Swiatek said her injury was not serious but did bother her before and during the match.

“I couldn’t even sleep well yesterday. I slept, like, few hours,” she said. “I think I was feeling everything twice as much as I should. It was hard to rationally just see what’s going on.”

In the day’s first quarterfinal, Gauff led 3-0 at the outset, then 5-3, and held a total of five set points in the opener, but failed to convert any. Krejcikova grabbed that set by taking the last four points of the tiebreaker and reeled off 15 consecutive points during one stretch en route to a 5-0 edge in the second set.

Closing out the most important victory of her singles career was not easy, though: Krejcikova needed six match points to do it.

Krejcikova has won two Grand Slam doubles titles with Katerina Siniakova – and they’re into the semifinals in Paris – but is playing in only her fifth major tournament in singles.

“Everybody, they just put a label on me like, `Yeah, you play doubles. You are a doubles specialist.’ But I never thought I just want to be a doubles specialist,” Krejcikova said.

“So I was just working hard all the time. I just wanted to play singles. It was really, like, frustrating that I just wasn’t able to get there,” she said. “But I always felt … sooner or later, I’m just going to get there.”

Look at her now. She’s ranked a career-high 33rd and on a 10-match winning streak in singles.

Krejcikova ended the nine-match run of the 24th-seeded Gauff, who is based in Florida and was the youngest French Open quarterfinalist since 2006.

Gauff’s 41 unforced errors included seven double-faults – and after one, she mangled her racket frame by whacking it three times against the ground.

“My hitting partner told me this match will probably make me a champion in the future,” Gauff said. “I really do believe that.”

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.