Nadal reaches Australian Open quarterfinals for 14th time

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal finally got the better of a crazy, long tiebreaker and knew he’d won half the battle.

After saving four set points and missing with the first six of his own, Nadal finally clinched a tiebreaker that lasted 28 minutes and 40 seconds to set himself on course to secure a spot in the Australian Open quarterfinals for a 14th time.

After his 7-6 (14), 6-2, 6-2 fourth-round victory over fellow left-hander Adrian Mannarino, Nadal is potentially just three wins away from a men’s record 21st Grand Slam singles title.

He later reflected on a tiebreaker where momentum swung wildly; where chants of “Let’s go Rafa, Let’s go!” rang out; where a point was decided on a 25-shot rally with both players scrambling at full stretch; and that ended only when Nadal volleyed from deep in the court and Mannarino’s reflex reply skewed wide.

“Well, you know, I played a couple,” he said, smiling, in reference to long tiebreakers. “But, yeah, (it was) a crazy one, chances for both. And, yeah, lucky to win that tiebreak at the end, no?

“Half of the match in the tiebreak, without a doubt.”

Nadal will next play Denis Shapovalov, the 22-year-old Canadian who finished off a 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 win over Olympic gold medalist Alexander Zverev on Margaret Court Arena less than an hour later to reach the last eight in Australia for the first time.

Shapovalov had to isolate after testing positive for COVID-19 when he arrived in Australia ahead of the year’s first major, but recovered quickly to help Canada win the ATP Cup in Sydney and now reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal for the third time.

Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty advanced to the quarterfinals for the fourth straight year when she beat 20-year-old American Amanda Anisimova 6-4, 6-3.

Barty is aiming to be the first Australian woman to win her home Grand Slam title since 1978 and has gone through the first four rounds without dropping a set.

Anisimova, coming off a third-round upset over defending champion Naomi Osaka, broke Barty’s opening service game of the second set – a first for the tournament – but the two-time major winner responded by taking six of the last seven games.

Barty beat Anisimova in the semifinals of the French Open in 2019 on the way to winning her first Grand Slam title and won her second at Wimbledon last year.

She’ll next play No. 21-seeded Jessica Pegula, who beat fifth-seeded Maria Sakkari 7-6 (0), 6-3.

French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova breezed to a 6-2, 6-2 win over two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and is into the last eight for the third time in four Grand Slam events.

Wimbledon runner-up Matteo Berrettini completed a Grand Slam set with a 7-5, 7-6 (4), 6-4 win over 19th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta in the last match on Day 7.

The seventh-seeded Berrettini has now reached the quarterfinals at all four of the tennis majors and will next play No. 17 Gael Monfils, who beat Miomir Kecmanovic 7-5, 7-6 (4), 6-3. The 35-year-old Monfils made it to the last eight for the second time in 17 trips to Melbourne Park.

Nadal, in his 17th campaign in Australia, is now tied with John Newcombe in second spot on the all-time list for most Australian Open quarterfinals, one behind Roger Federer’s 15.

It’s also the 35-year-old Spaniard’s 45th time into the last eight at a Grand Slam tournament, which is third on the all-time list behind Federer (58) and Novak Djokovic (51).

He shares the men’s record of 20 major titles with Federer and Djokovic. But he’s the only one of the trio playing in this tournament. Nine-time Australian Open champion Djokovic was deported on the eve of the tournament because he didn’t meet Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination rules. Federer is recovering from injury.

Mannarino, who didn’t finish his 4-hour, 38-minute four-set, third-round win over No. 18 Aslan Karatsev until after 2 a.m. on Saturday and appeared to be hampered by an abdominal or upper leg injury, threw everything at Nadal in the opening set on Rod Laver Arena, where temperatures approached 33 Celsius (91 F).

“After first set I couldn’t really fight against Rafa,” said the 33-year-old No. 69-ranked Mannarino. “You know, he was playing too well for me not to be 100%. The second and third set just went all the way for Rafa, so that’s it.”

The first set lasted 85 minutes, including the ‘breaker, but after getting early breaks in the second and third sets the match was over in 2 hours, 40 minutes.

“I’m very happy I survived that first set, without a doubt,” said the sixth-seeded Nadal, who saved one of the only two breakpoint chances he faced, and converted five of 17. “That crazy first set was so important.”

The No. 14-seeded Shapovalov spent almost 11 hours on court through the first three rounds, winning twice in four sets and once in five, and was surprised by the relative speed of his 2-hour, 21-minute win over Zverev.

“Definitely happy with where the game is at,” he said. “I played pretty smart today.”

Shapovalov reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 2020 and was a semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, his career-best run to date at a major. He’ll have to step it up against one of the greatest in the game.

“It’s always an honor to go up against a guy like Rafa,” Shapovalov said. “It’s always fun. Always going to be a battle against him.”

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.