Defending champ France loses at BJK Cup finals, Spain wins

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PRAGUE – Canada won the decisive doubles to upset defending champion France 2-1 in the Billie Jean King Cup finals.

Spain staged a comeback to beat Slovakia 2-1 for the first time after two losses, including the 2002 final. Also, the Czech Republic prevailed in the doubles to overcome Germany 2-1 in Group D, and Belgium beat Belarus 2-1 on the hard courts at the O2 Arena.

After the French and Canadian teams split the opening singles, Gabriela Dabrowski and Rebecca Marino defeated Lara Burel and Alize Cornet 6-3, 7-6 (6).

“We should be really proud of ourselves,” Marino said.

In the opening singles, the 353th-ranked Francoise Abanda rallied from a set down to upset Fiona Ferro, ranked 105th, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 to put Canada ahead.

“I was a little bit nervous at the beginning,” Abanda said. “I’m happy it turned out in my favor.”

Cornet tied it for France after beating Marino 6-4, 7-6 (5).

The victory marked Canada’s first over France since 1980.

Belgium’s Greet Minnen defeated Iryna Shymanovich 6-2, 6-2 and Elise Mertens overcame a second-set scare to beat Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 for an insurmountable 2-0 lead.

In doubles, Vera Lapko and Aliaksandra Sasnovich teamed up to take a consolation 6-4, 6-3 victory over Kirsten Flipkens and Mertens.

On Tuesday, Canada faces Russia and Belgium takes on Australia.

Lucie Hradecka and Tokyo Games doubles winner Katerina Siniakova joined forces to beat Germany’s Anna-Lena Friedsam and Jule Niemeier 6-4, 6 (2)-7, 10-8.

Earlier, three-time Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber came from a set down to defeat French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova 6 (5)-7, 6-0, 6-4 to level the tie at 1-1.

“To be here again, it’s a great feeling,” said Kerber, who was on Germany’s team that lost to the Czechs in the 2014 final at the same arena.

Marketa Vondrousova dispatched Andrea Petkovic 6-1, 6-3 to give the Czechs the first point. The Tokyo Olympics runner-up dominated their first encounter, breaking Petkovic five times and dropping her serve once. She converted her first match point with a forehand winner.

“I was just playing my game, trying to do my best, so I’m happy,” Vondrousova said. “It’s just an amazing feeling to play for my country and also at home.”

Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo and Carla Suarez Navarro completed the comeback against Slovakia by topping Viktoria Kuzmova and Tereza Mihalikova 4-6, 6-2, 10-7.

Slovakia led 1-0 after Kuzmova hit nine aces and added 27 winners in beating Suarez Navarro 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

Suarez Navarro returned to professional tennis following chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin lymphoma at the French Open and has announced this will be her last season on tour.

Sorribes Tormo also needed three sets to make it 1-1 with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 win over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.

Spain plays the United States on Tuesday while German meets Switzerland.

The competition formerly known as the Fed Cup was originally scheduled to take place in Budapest, Hungary in April 2020 but was postponed for 12 months because of the pandemic. In February, it was postponed again.

Organizers were then forced to find a new host – Prague – when Budapest backed out in May, citing lingering COVID-19 concerns.

The 12 teams in the finals are divided into four groups of three teams. Only the group winners advance to Friday’s semifinals.

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.