Medvedev saves match point, moves into Australian Open semis

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MELBOURNE, Australia — He lost the first two sets, was low on confidence and was one point from a quarterfinal exit at the Australian Open, so Daniil Medvedev asked himself the question: What would Novak do?

Fair question. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic is a nine-time Australian Open champion who finished one win short of a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2021.

Modelling himself after the 20-time Grand Slam champion, Medvedev told himself to make Felix Auger-Aliassime fight for every point.

More than one hour after saving a match point on his serve in the fourth set, the U.S. Open champion finished off a 6-7 (4), 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-4 comeback victory almost a half-hour after midnight.

“He was playing insane, like better than I have ever seen him play. It was unreal,” Medvedev said. “So third set I had zero confidence in myself and in the outcome of the match.”

Medvedev mentioned his thoughts about Djokovic during his on-court TV interview and in a later news conference. He wasn’t joking.

“I was not playing my best, and Felix … was all over me,” Medvedev said. “I didn’t know what to do so I (asked) myself, `What would Novak do?’

“And I just thought, OK, I’m going to make him work. If he wants to win it, he has to … fight to the last point.”

Medvedev will have to recover quickly to play Friday against French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas in a rematch of last year’s semifinals at Melbourne Park. Medvedev won at the same stage last year but lost in the final to Djokovic, who wasn’t allowed to defend the title this month because he failed to meet Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination rules.

Tsitsipas had a much easier path to the semifinals, beating No. 11 Jannik Sinner 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 earlier on Day 10.

Both men’s quarterfinals had delays mid-match because of rain.

Medvedev got a six-minute break at 2-1 in the third-set tiebreaker for the roof on Rod Laver Arena to be closed, and it swung the momentum mostly his way.

Auger-Aliassime won only one of the last six points in the tiebreaker after dominating for the first two sets. He missed a match point on Medvedev’s serve in the 10th game of the fourth set.

Medvedev saved it with a big first serve out wide and then held with an overhead winner.

He broke Auger-Aliassime’s serve in the next game game and held to level the match at two-sets all. He then got another service break when the 21-year-old Canadian double-faulted in the third game of the deciding set.

It still wasn’t over yet.

Serving for the match, Medvedev had to save two break points – he saved six of six in the set and nine of 11 overall – before closing it out.

After the 4-hour, 42-minute quarterfinal match, Medvedev is now two wins from becoming the first man in the Open era to win his second Grand Slam title in the next major tournament after his first.

It’s a statistic he said he wasn’t previously aware of, but would now serve as extra motivation to win the title.

“If it’s true, then it will be history,” he said. “It’s perfect.”

Auger-Aliassime had lost all three previous matches against the second-ranked Medvedev, including a straight-set loss in the U.S. Open semifinals last September.

But he was the aggressor in the first two sets, keeping Medvedev off balance with his forehand, up-tempo game and athleticism. He hit 64 winners and made 75 unforced errors as he attacked at every opportunity. It forced Medvedev into uncharacteristic double-faults in the first set and made him play more inside the baseline to claw his way back in the third and fourth sets.

“I wish I could go back and change it, but I can’t,” Auger-Aliassime said of the result. “I have accepted it already. I’m going to leave Australia with my head held high, and I’m going to go into the rest of the season knowing I can play well against the best players in the world.”

Medvedev finished with 49 winners and 53 unforced errors. He served 15 aces but also had nine double-faults. He has been effectively the No. 1 seed since Djokovic was deported on the eve of the tournament following an 11-day visa saga.

Another who could benefit from Djokovic’s absence is Rafael Nadal.

The 35-year-old Spaniard, seeking a men’s record 21st major title to break a tie with Djokovic and Roger Federer, will play Wimbledon runner-up Matteo Berrettini in the other semifinal match.

The temperature dropped for the men’s quarterfinals from the highs of the afternoon, when Danielle Collins beat Alize Cornet 7-5, 6-1 and 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek defeated 36-year-old Kaia Kanepi 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3.

Collins’ win means there are two Americans in the semifinals. Madison Keys, the 2017 U.S. Open runner-up, will play Wimbledon champion Ash Barty.

The women’s semifinals are scheduled for Thursday.

After the first three women’s quarterfinals were decided in straight sets – top-ranked Barty beat Jessica Pegula and Keys eliminated Barbora Krejcikova on Tuesday – the last one went all the way.

“This match was crazy,” Swiatek said of her up-and-down win.

The temperature reached 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) in that match, continuing a week of hot weather.

As she left the court, Swiatek wrote on the TV camera lens: “Thank you for the support. (hash) Tired.”

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.