Iga Swiatek clinches No. 1 ranking, moves on at Miami Open

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Iga Swiatek started her week by deciding that she wanted to set her sights on becoming the No. 1 player in the world, without knowing how long that quest would take.

A few days and one surprising retirement later, mission accomplished.

Women’s tennis has a new name atop its rankings, a 20-year-old who – now that Ashleigh Barty has retired and asked to vacate her No. 1 spot on the world list – becomes the first Polish player to hold that distinction. Swiatek’s ascension was clinched with a 6-2, 6-0 win over Viktorija Golubic of Switzerland in the second round of the Miami Open.

When the tournament ends and the rankings are updated April 4, Barty will be removed and Swiatek officially will move into the top spot no matter what happens the rest of the way in Miami.

“I’m really satisfied and really proud of myself,” Swiatek said.

Swiatek becomes the 28th different woman to hold the No. 1 ranking since the computerized system debuted in November 1975. Her rise has been steady and constant; she ended 2016 ranked No. 903, cracked the top 500 for the first time in 2018, ended 2020 ranked No. 17, then was No. 9 when last year ended.

Barty revealed her retirement decision on Wednesday, and as part of that said she wanted to be removed from the rankings. She’s held the top spot since November 2019 and would have kept the top spot after this tournament ended even if Swiatek won the title.

But her decision to retire and step out of the rankings opened the door for either Swiatek or Paula Badosa, the No. 5 seed in Miami and the only other person who had a mathematical chance of getting the top spot. Badosa won her second-rounder in Miami on Friday, topping Marie Bouzkova 7-5, 7-5 in a match that ended shortly before Swiatek took the court.

Badosa was ranked No. 71 when she played in Miami last year.

“Things have changed a lot, very fast,” Badosa said. “I’m really proud of myself. I think I’ve had an amazing year.”

Swiatek and Badosa bucked a wild trend in Miami – where seeded women’s players have had serious struggles. There were 32 seeds entering the tournament, and more than half of them are gone before the third round even gets started.

Coco Gauff is one of the few exceptions.

The 14th-seeded American, whose home is about a 45-minute drive north from where she’s playing this event, got past Wang Qiang of China 7-5, 6-4 on Friday – avenging a first-round loss to her in the Australian Open earlier this year.

“I feel like playing at a home crowd you either can get nervous playing in front of your family, friends, or embrace it,” Gauff said. “And today I think I embraced it.”

No. 16 Jessica Pegula felt right at home too, even though the tournament is held on the grounds where the NFL’s Miami Dolphins practice and play – and her parents, Terry and Kim Pegula, just happen to own the Dolphins’ AFC East rival Buffalo Bills. Pegula had little trouble beating 2018 Miami Open winner Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4.

“It is weird,” Pegula said about playing at the Dolphins’ home.

No. 4 Maria Sakkari, No. 10 Jelena Ostapenko, No. 20 Elise Mertens, No. 24 Sorana Cirstea, No. 26 Madison Keys and No. 29 Liudmila Samsonova all lost second-round matches Friday.

Shelby Rogers of the U.S. used 15 aces – and saved nine of the 10 break points she faced – to beat Ostapenko, 6-3, 7-6 (0). It was Rogers’ second win over Ostapenko this month, after also topping her in a second-round matchup at Indian Wells.

“There are no easy matches out here,” Rogers said.

Beatriz Haddad Maia topped Sakkari 4-6, 6-1, 6-2. Madison Brengle of the U.S. beat Samsonova 6-4, 6-0. China’s Zhang Shuai needed only 53 minutes to beat Cirstea, 6-1, 6-1. Linda Fruhvirtova topped Mertens 7-5, 2-6, 6-1.

Other seeded second-round women’s winners Friday included No. 17 Elena Rybakina, No. 21 Veronika Kudermetova and No. 28 Petra Kvitova.

In men’s second-round play, No. 16 Reilly Opelka retired from his match against Argentina’s Francisco Cerundolo with a shoulder injury, and Hugo Gaston knocked out No. 20 John Isner of the U.S. 7-6 (5), 6-4. Isner – the 2018 Miami champion – had 22 aces and was broken just once, but went 0 for 5 on his break chances.

No. 2 seed Alexander Zverev was tested but topped 166th-ranked Borna Coric 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, and said getting more aggressive as the match went along was key.

“I felt like, `OK, if I’m going to lose, I’m going to go for it,”‘ Zverev said. “It worked out.”

Fan favorite Nick Kyrgios rolled past No. 5 Andrey Rublev 6-3, 6-0, and No. 9 Jannik Sinner held off Emil Ruusuvuori 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (8).

No. 6 Casper Ruud, No. 10 Cameron Norrie, No. 17 Pablo Carreno Busta, No. 22 Gael Monfils, No. 28 Frances Tiafoe, No. 30 Alexander Bublik and No. 31 Fabio Fognini were all winners, but No. 13 Diego Schwartzman lost to Thanasi Kokkinakis and No. 19 Lorenzo Sonego of Italy lost to Denis Kudla of the U.S.

Mackenzie McDonald of the U.S. also pulled off a mild upset, topping No. 26 Grigor Dimitrov 6-1, 6-4.

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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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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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.