Swiatek, Sakkari advance to Indian Wells final

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Iga Swiatek rallied from a break down in each set to beat Simona Halep 7-6 (6), 6-4 and reach the final of the BNP Paribas Open.

Maria Sakkari outlasted defending champion Paula Badosa 6-2, 4-6, 6-1 and will play Swiatek in the final. Swiatek is assured of reaching a new career high of either No. 2 or No. 3 in the world depending on the outcome.

Swiatek saved two set points in the first-set tiebreaker when she overcame deficits of 3-1 and 5-3. She won the final four points, with Halep committing errors on three of those points, before Swiatek cracked a forehand winner off Halep’s second serve. Halep received a racket abuse warning for smashing her racket on the court.

Swiatek took a 2-1 lead in the second set that featured five service breaks. Halep took a medical timeout and had a trainer wrap her upper left thigh.

Halep then broke Swiatek twice while taking the next three games for a 4-2 lead. But Swiatek took over from there. She won the last four games in a row, with Halep winning just four points total on her serve while getting broken twice.

“We had like the longest rallies I played here,” Swiatek said. “At the beginning I had to adjust a little bit to the new rhythm because Simona was for sure playing good than my opponents in previous rounds, and I’m pretty proud that I did that. Mentally, I was pretty strong.”

On the men’s side, Taylor Fritz defeated Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-1 to reach the semifinals for the second time in five months.

The 24-year-old American is in the midst of the best stretch of his young career, and it all began in the desert in October. That’s when the tournament was held last year, pushed out of its traditional March spot because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, Fritz came into Indian Wells ranked 39th in the world. He beat top-10 players Matteo Berrettini and Alexander Zverev before losing in the semis to Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia.

He’s now No. 20 – having reached a career-high 16th in February – and is 24-8 since last year’s tournament. He’s made the quarterfinals in five tournaments and reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in January at the Australian Open.

“Things are starting to come together,” he said. “I feel like my level as a player has gone up a ton.”

Fritz has recorded many milestones at Indian Wells, where he’s always a crowd favorite. He first began coming to the event as a kid, having grown up near San Diego as the son of former WTA Tour player Kathy May.

“I didn’t watch any matches,” said Fritz, who instead chased players for autographs, including Andy Murray and Bernard Tomic.

Fritz made his debut in a Masters 1000 main draw at Indian Wells and notched his first top-10 win here in 2017. His father, Guy Fritz, is a former ATP Tour pro who coaches the men’s tennis team at the nearby College of the Desert.

“It feels like a second home,” he said. “Just the energy is completely different.”

Fritz is the first American to reach consecutive semifinals at Indian Wells since Andy Roddick in 2009-10. The last American to win the tournament was Andre Agassi in 2001; Fritz was 3 years old at the time.

“There’s no place I’d rather have these results than here,” Fritz said.

After he and Kecmanovic split sets, Fritz dominated the third. He raced to a 5-0 lead before the Serb held. Fritz then served a love game to close out the match.

Fritz next plays No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev of Russia, who beat Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, 7-5 6-2.

Rublev has won 13 consecutive matches and is coming off back-to-back titles in Marseille and Dubai. He never trailed against Dimitrov and dropped serve just once in the 1 1/2-hour match that paired former world No 1 junior players.

Rublev has yet to drop a set in the tournament.

“I’m really motivated to be a better player,” he said. “It’s like sometimes I cannot wait to go to play next tournament, you know?”

Saturday’s other semifinal pits Rafael Nadal against 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz in an all-Spanish matchup. Nadal is 19-0 this year.

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.