Wimbledon returns to rain, fans, upsets

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WIMBLEDON, England — Shortly after 1:30 p.m. on Monday, two years minus two weeks from the last time a meaningful match was played at Wimbledon, a voice blared over the loudspeakers: “Good afternoon and welcome to Centre Court.”

Then came an announcement welcoming “special guests in the Royal Box,” including a woman who developed one of the COVID-19 vaccines, prompting the first of the day’s several standing ovations from spectators. And, eventually, came the words, “We’ve waited awhile for this,” before the introduction of Novak Djokovic and the opponent he would go on to beat 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 with the help of 25 aces, Jack Draper, a 19-year-old wild-card entry from England ranked 253rd.

It was, in some respects, as if Wimbledon had never left, as if the All England Club hadn’t decided to cancel the oldest Grand Slam tournament for the first time since World War II a year ago because of the pandemic.

There was raucous cheering from the stands – even before two-time champion Andy Murray played, and won, his first singles match at the place in four years. There was rain – so much rain that play on courts without a roof was delayed more than 4 1/2 hours, 11 matches were suspended in progress because of darkness and more than 20 others were postponed until Tuesday.

And there was tennis – and reminders of how sports are unpredictable and can bring such joy and disappointment. A pair of Americans picked up the most newsworthy victories: Frances Tiafoe eliminated French Open runner-up and No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, while 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens beat two-time Wimbledon winner and No. 10 seed Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-4.

Tiafoe had been 0-11 against opponents ranked in the Top 5.

“That guy is special. He’s going to do a lot of great things, win a ton of Grand Slams,” Tiafoe said about Tsitsipas, then broke into a wide smile and added: “But not today.”

Murray, whose title at 2013 made him the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, has been working his way back after a pair of hip operations and he tested the locals’ patience during a topsy-turvy 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 win over No. 24 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili at Centre Court.

“Amazing reception when I came out. Great atmosphere the whole match,” Murray told the crowd after blowing a 5-0 lead and two match points in the third set. “So thanks for that.”

Tiafoe and Stephens are among 34 Americans in the singles brackets (21 women, 13 men), the most at Wimbledon since there were 35 in 1998. Others who won on Day 1 included qualifier Denis Kudla, who knocked off No. 30 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3; 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys, Danielle Collins and Lauren Davis.

Other seeded men who lost: No. 19 Jannik Sinner of Italy and No. 27 Reilly Opelka of the U.S.

“Not playing last year was very, very disappointing, and it feels a little bit weird that there was such a big gap in between grass seasons. But to have a crowd and the size of the crowd that we had today – I, at one point, felt like it was back to normal,” said No. 23 Keys, who beat British qualifier Katie Swan 6-3, 6-4 without facing a break point.

“It was just very, very nice to be back in a situation where you felt an amazing crowd,” Keys said, “even if they were cheering, obviously, for my opponent and wanted her to win. It was just so nice to have energy and people who are excited to watch tennis.”

The coronavirus still looms over the event.

Fans must wear masks around the grounds (although not while watching a match) and show proof they either are fully vaccinated or had COVID-19 in the past six months. All players and their entourages have to stay at one London hotel, where they take regular tests and are subject to contact tracing.

Britain’s only seeded woman in singles, No. 27 Johanna Konta, was forced to withdraw Sunday night because she must self-isolate for 10 days after one of her team members tested positive for COVID-19.

The top-seeded Djokovic got off to a slow start in his bid for a record-tying 20th Grand Slam title and sixth at Wimbledon.

It would have been so easy – so understandable, even – for Draper to be fazed by the moment and the opponent, the setting and the stakes, right away. This was his Grand Slam main draw debut, after all. But he stole the first break to lead 2-1 and wound up taking that set by saving 7 of 7 break points.

Djokovic took two tumbles onto his backside in the first set, losing his footing on the slick grass behind the baseline. This was his first competitive singles match on the surface since edging Roger Federer in the 2019 final.

“To be honest, I don’t recall falling this many times on the court,” Djokovic said with a laugh. “Well, quite slippery, whether it’s because the roof is closed or it was raining quite a lot the last few days, I don’t know.”

A 125 mph service winner gave Draper the opening set after 37 minutes. He shook his racket, then pumped his right fist.

The crowd roared.

And two hours later, it was all over.

Djokovic cleaned up his act considerably, going from just six winners and nine unforced errors in the opening set to a combined 41 winners and 15 unforced errors the rest of the way.

“I’m really glad,” he said, speaking for many, “that the sport is back.”

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.