Nadal now 17-0, No. 1 Medvedev crashes out at Indian Wells

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Rafael Nadal is still perfect in 2022.

The Spaniard defeated 27th-seeded Daniel Evans 7-5, 6-3 in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open, improving his record to 17-0 this year in pursuit of an ATP Tour-leading fourth title.

Nadal tied Roger Federer (2018) and Pete Sampras (1997) for the third-best overall start to a season in the Open era that began in 1968.

Daniil Medvedev’s rise to No. 1 in the world came crashing down in a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 loss to Gael Monfils. Medvedev needed to reach the quarterfinals in the desert to stay at the top, where he replaced Novak Djokovic.

“Is it better to be No. 1 for let’s say one week in your life or never touch it?” Medvedev said. “You know, I think it’s still better to at least touch it.”

Djokovic will reclaim the No. 1 ranking next week. The Serb is unvaccinated against COVID-19, so he wasn’t allowed to enter the United States to play at Indian Wells or the upcoming Miami Open.

So far this year, no one is touching the fourth-ranked Nadal.

He became the first player to win 400 matches in ATP Masters 1000 events.

After sitting out much of last year because of injury, Nadal has been on a tear. He won titles at Melbourne, the Australian Open for his record 21st Grand Slam title and Acapulco, and is chasing a third career title at Indian Wells.

Nadal’s win over Evans under a searing desert sun had him coming from a break down in the first set. It ended with the Spaniard serving out the match at love, ripping a forehand winner on triple match point.

“It’s an important victory against a tricky opponent,” Nadal said. “It’s not an easy opponent to play. He plays tactically very well, using very well his slice, then playing aggressive, changing rhythms on the points.”

Before his first match in California, Nadal withdrew from the hard-court event at Miami, which begins March 21. He turns 36 in June and is dealing with chronic pain in his left foot and tendinitis in both knees.

“I cannot make drastic changes like I did in the past,” he said, “so that’s why I decided to stop after here and to have three weeks before the clay court season starts for me.”

Nadal survived a scare in his first match against Sebastian Korda. The 21-year-old American served for the match leading 5-2 and 5-4 in the final set.

“It was very important that I can win these first two matches without playing fantastic, but today was a little bit better than the first day,” Nadal said.

Monfils reached the fourth round at Indian Wells for the fifth time in six years after his second career upset of a No. 1 player. He knocked out Nadal in the quarterfinals at Doha in 2009.

“I just felt good today,” Monfils said. “Tactically, I was good. I’m full of confidence.”

Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz defeated countryman and 15th-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut 6-2, 6-0 and next plays Monfils.

Reilly Opelka beat 13th-seeded Denis Shapovalov 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4 to set up a fourth-round match against Nadal. The 24-year-old American is coming off two straight finals appearances that went to tiebreakers in both sets. He won at Dallas and lost at Delray Beach, Florida.

Jenson Brooksby defeated No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas 1-6, 6-3, 6-2.

In women’s action, No. 4 seed Anett Kontaveit lost to Marketa Vondrousova 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (5). Defending champion Paula Badosa beat Sara Sorribes Tormo 7-6 (4), 6-1. No. 6 seed Maria Sakkari defeated Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-0.

Two-time tournament winner Victoria Azarenka lost to Elena Rybakina 6-3, 6-4. Late in the match, Azarenka bent over at the service line and hung her head. The chair umpire came out to check on her and it appeared Azarenka was teary-eyed. She eventually regained her composure and finished out the match.

No. 20 Elise Mertens ended the run of Australian qualifier Daria Saville, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. No. 21 Veronika Kudermetova advanced when qualifier Marie Bouzkova retired with the Russian leading 6-4, 0-2.

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.