No. 1 Djokovic and No. 2 Medvedev reach Paris Masters semis

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PARIS — Top-ranked Novak Djokovic beat unseeded American Taylor Fritz 6-4, 6-3 to reach the Paris Masters semifinals and remain on course for a record-extending sixth title at the tournament.

Djokovic is also vying for a record 37th Masters title. He is tied on 36 with fellow 20-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal.

Djokovic, who next faces seventh-seeded Hubert Hurkacz of Poland, is playing in his first tournament since losing the U.S. Open final in straight sets to Daniil Medvedev in September.

“I felt good, considering that it was only second match back on the tour from almost two months of not playing a competitive match,” said Djokovic, who had a walkover in the third round after Gael Monfils pulled out injured. “I have to be satisfied, but also there are things that need to improve, and I know that.”

He could face Medvedev, the defending Paris Masters champion, in the final again this Sunday. The second-seeded Russian saved three set points at 5-4 and 0-40 in the first set before beating French qualifier Hugo Gaston 7-6 (7), 6-4.

He next plays fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev, whom he beat in last year’s final. Zverev was largely untroubled in a 7-5, 6-4 win against No. 6 Casper Ruud of Norway.

Zverev leads Medvedev 5-4 in career meetings, although Medvedev won the past three contests.

A double break of serve put Medvedev 4-0 up in the second set against Gaston.

But Gaston, who won seven straight games from 5-0 down in the second set against Spanish teen Carlos Alcaraz in the third round, rallied to 4-3.

Medvedev’s 12th and 13th aces made it 5-3.

As they did against Alcaraz, the home crowd at times cheered Medvedev’s errors on serve and they roared in delight when he double-faulted on his first match point. They were silenced when he clinched victory on his next attempt.

“It was a tough match, I have to say, in front of a very difficult crowd. … Hugo played very well, he’s very good,” Medvedev said. “He’s able to put spin on the ball and to also have drop shots on the same ball. You never know what he’s about to do, so it’s not easy for your footwork.”

Earlier, Hurkacz beat Australian James Duckworth 6-2, 6-7 (4), 7-5 to secure the last spot for the season-ending ATP Finals.

Following him onto court, Djokovic secured an early break for 2-0 but Fritz broke the Serb at love in the next game.

Djokovic had a love break of his own in the eighth game but slipped to 0-40 when serving for the first set after Fritz won a 26-shot rally, and then won the next point to pull back to 5-4.

But a rushed backhand into the net gave Djokovic a set point in the next game. Fritz saved it when Djokovic sent a forehand long, but Djokovic took his next chance when the 26th-ranked Fritz’s shot landed out.

After they traded breaks at the start of the second set, Djokovic needed to save two break points in the third game before a much-needed ace on the way to a hold for 2-1.

Djokovic took control with a forehand winner to break Fritz and then held at love for 5-2.

Serving for the match, Djokovic cruised to 40-0 and sealed the victory on his first match point with a backhand volley at full stretch that just dropped over the net.

He is 2-0 against Hurkacz, who was thrilled at making the ATP Finals, which start in the Italian city of Turin on Nov. 14.

“It feels incredible. Growing up as a kid, seeing all those top guys playing in the Finals, it’s inspiring,” the 24-year-old said. “Now being among them, it’s very special because it’s just eight spots there.”

Hurkacz reached the Wimbledon semifinals this year, beating 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer in the quarters. He then broke into the Top 10 for the first time last month.

The 29-year-old Duckworth, ranked 55th, was in his first quarterfinal at Masters level.

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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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.