Osaka, Nadal advance in Australian Open after Djokovic flies home

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MELBOURNE, Australia — The first test of Naomi Osaka’s new approach to tennis might have been when she completely whiffed an overhead to give her opponent a break point on Day 1 of the no-Novak Djokovic Australian Open.

Osaka didn’t throw her racket. She didn’t roll her eyes. She smiled.

“There are situations where I previously would get upset. But at this point in my life, like, I’m here because I want to be here and because I find that it’s fun for me,” Osaka said. “Might as well enjoy it while I still can.”

In Osaka’s mind, the drama involving nine-time champion Djokovic’s deportation on the eve of the Australian Open was something for the players in the men’s draw to worry about. Her title defense began smoothly enough: She won the first five games on the way to a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Camila Osorio.

With so much attention on the 11-day saga of Djokovic’s attempt to participate in the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, the returns of Osaka and Rafael Nadal have been overshadowed.

Osaka wasn’t bothered by that. Nadal didn’t seem to be put off by it, either, renewing his bid for a record 21st Grand Slam singles title with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 win over Marcos Giron.

Nadal is tied with Djokovic and Roger Federer with 20 major singles titles each, the most in the history of men’s tennis. With Djokovic unable to defend his crown in Melbourne because he didn’t meet Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination criteria, the door is slightly more ajar to Nadal.

Osaka’s main concern, meanwhile, is winning a third Australian title in four years.

“To be completely honest, it didn’t really affect me,” Osaka said of the Djokovic drama. “My goal, like even before this whole situation, is to just focus on myself more, what I need to do to become better.

“Me, I’m a tennis player. I’ll focus on my matches. You as, I guess, an audience, focus on whatever is in the news, no?”

A potential fourth-round meeting with top-ranked Ash Barty could be waiting. Barty, aiming to be the first Australian woman to win the title in Melbourne since 1978, beat Lesia Tsurenko 6-0, 6-1.

Osaka, after winning the title last year, pulled out of the French Open before the second round, then sat out Wimbledon. She played at the Tokyo Olympics, where she lit the cauldron, but ended her 2021 season early after a third-round loss and a teary news conference at the U.S. Open.

Two of her goals for 2022 are to stay completely composed on the court and off, and to enjoy the game.

And, yes, finally, the focus was on tennis in Australia. It got started in a big way, with a combined 64 singles matches on opening day.

French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, fifth-seeded Maria Sakkari, No. 15 Elina Svitolina and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka all advanced.

Two young American contenders went out in the first round, with 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin losing 7-6 (2), 7-5 to Madison Keys and No. 18 Coco Gauff saving five match points before losing 6-4, 6-2 to Wang Qiang.

Olympic champion Belinda Bencic advanced to a second-round match against Amanda Anisimova.

Men’s Olympic champion Alexander Zverev wrapped up the Day 1 program on Rod Laver Arena with a 7-6 (3), 6-1, 7-6 (1) win over Daniel Altmaier and will next play John Millman, who ended 40-year-old Feliciano Lopez’s 79th consecutive Grand Slam event in the first round.

No. 14 Denis Shapovalov followed up his win with Canada in the ATP Cup with a 7-6 (3), 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3) win over Laslo Djere.

Also advancing were No. 7 Matteo Berrettini, No. 10 Hubert Hurkacz, No. 16 Cristian Garin, No. 17 Gael Monfils and No. 23 Reilly Opelka, while No. 12 Cameron Norrie lost in straight sets to Sebastian Korda.

Nadal won the Australian Open in 2009 and is the only past champion in the men’s bracket after Djokovic’s late withdrawal Sunday. On Monday, the top-ranked Serbian landed in Dubai, then caught a flight to Belgrade.

Monday was Nadal’s first appearance at a major since he lost to Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open. He missed Wimbledon because of fatigue, skipped the U.S. Open with a painful left foot and, after recovering from COVID-19, started 2022 with a title in a tuneup tournament in Melbourne.

“Honestly, it’s been very tough moments and there are still doubts,” Nadal said. “But here I am and I can’t be happier to be back in this amazing stadium. It’s fantastic.”

The 35-year-old Spaniard said Djokovic’s absence would have an impact on the tournament.

“In a personal level, yes, I would like to see him playing here,” Nadal said. “If it is fair or not that he’s playing here is another discussion that I don’t want to talk anymore.”

Djokovic had been scheduled to play the last match on Rod Laver against Miomir Kecmanovic. Instead, Salvatore Caruso, who lost in qualifying but became the so-called lucky loser to fill the late vacancy in the draw, took the court and lost to Kecmanovic 6-4, 6-2, 6-1.

Djokovic’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to defend his title involved two court hearings and time in immigration hotel detention.

It began when he was granted an exemption to strict vaccination rules by two medical panels and Tennis Australia in order to play in the tournament.

That exemption, based on evidence that he recently recovered from COVID-19, allowed him to enter the tournament. But upon arrival, border officials said the exemption was not valid and moved to deport him.

Showing evidence of vaccination is a requirement for anyone – players, coaches, fans, others – entering Melbourne Park for the tournament.

A security official with a loudspeaker reminded people lining up outside the complex early Monday to have proof of vaccination ready for inspection and added: “Oh, a ticket would be handy, too!”

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.