Paula Badosa feeling right at home, moves on at Miami Open

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Paula Badosa was midway through an on-court interview after another victory at the Miami Open when a thought crossed her mind.

And given where she is right now, it made a lot of sense.

“Why am I speaking English?” she asked. “I think there’s much more Spanish people than English here.”

A few words in Spanish later, the crowd – always multicultural in the melting pot that is Miami – was roaring in delight. In whatever language, Badosa is through to the fourth round at the Miami Open after rolling past Yulia Putintseva 6-3, 6-2.

It is Badosa’s deepest run at Miami, where there were more than a few fans waving Spanish flags in her honor.

“Muchas gracias,” she said.

Badosa came to Miami – the tournament was played on nearby Key Biscayne then – for the first time in 2015 and made it to the third round while being ranked 419th in the world. She was 222nd when she returned in 2016, then 316th a year later, 130th in 2019 and 71st when she arrived in Miami last year.

But the past 12 months have seen serious change in the world rankings, particularly on the women’s side, and not just after last week’s surprise retirement of Ash Barty – who will come off the rankings April 4 and be replaced by Iga Swiatek as the new No. 1 player in the women’s game.

Depending on how the rest of this tournament goes, Badosa might be poised to climb to No. 2 behind Swiatek when Miami ends. She is a full-fledged star now, even getting the celebrity treatment and her own personalized jersey when she headed to a Miami Heat game a few miles down the road last week.

“I’m really happy about the performance,” Badosa said.

Badosa will meet unseeded Linda Fruhvirtova in the fourth round, after the 16-year-old from the Czech Republic got past three-time Miami Open winner and 12th-seeded Victoria Azarenka. Fruhvirtova led 6-2, 3-0 when Azarenka – the only past Miami winner who was left in the draw – retired.

“This is what I’ve always dreamed of,” said Fruhvirtova, who entered Miami ranked 279th and will likely climb about 100 spots – more if she keeps winning.

It was not a dream for Azarenka, who quit the match very abruptly and walked off the court. Later, in a statement released through the tournament, she apologized.

“I shouldn’t have gone on the court today,” she said. “The last few weeks have been extremely stressful in my personal life. Last match took so much out of me, but I wanted to play in front of a great audience as they helped me pull through my first match. I wanted to go out there and try but it was a mistake. I hope to take a break and be able to come back.”

Swiatek, playing for the first time since clinching the world No. 1 ranking, rolled past Madison Brengle of the U.S. 6-0, 6-3.

Coco Gauff, playing about 45 minutes from her home, overcame a tough test from Zhang Shuai and won 7-6 (1), 7-5. Jessica Pegula of the U.S. also made the fourth round, the No. 16 seed beating No. 17 Elena Rybakina 6-3, 6-4. No. 21 Veronika Kudermetova advanced as well, topping Shelby Rogers of the U.S. 6-1, 7-5, and No. 28 Petra Kvitova also prevailed.

On the men’s side, Nick Kyrgios had some problems.

Luckily for him, they were just of the postmatch variety.

He was taking part in a promotion where he was supposed to hit a souvenir tennis ball into the crowd, and whoever wound up with it would win a prize from one of the tournament sponsors.

Problem was, Kyrgios’ first attempt wound up making it only to a cameraman. And his second attempt ended up between sections of seats, unable to be claimed by anyone. At that point, officials found another way to give out the prize.

Kyrgios was a bit more accurate when things mattered. He had 24 winners to just 12 unforced errors and needed only 61 minutes to beat No. 31 seed Fabio Fognini 6-2, 6-4 – and has now made the fourth round at Miami in all five of his appearances at the tournament.

It’s no secret that he’s excitable. This might be a surprise: Moments before he was introduced and took the court Sunday, Kyrgios actually yawned.

“All the social media platforms hyping up the game and expecting it to be fireworks, I knew I had to go in with a calm mindset, head down and kind of let him bring all the flare and stuff today,” Kyrgios said. “I just had to keep my head down and just get on with business.”

It worked, and he was all smiles afterward.

“I love playing in front of you guys,” Kyrgios said.

So does No. 28 Frances Tiafoe of the U.S., who reached the fourth round in Miami for the fourth time after easing past Juan Manuel Cerundolo 6-3, 6-2.

Tiafoe’s next opponent may be seeking family revenge. He’ll now face Francisco Cerundolo – Juan Manuel’s brother – who got a 6-2, 6-3 win over No. 22 Gael Monfils.

No. 6 Casper Ruud had little trouble beating No. 30 Alexander Bublik 6-3, 6-2, and No. 10 Cameron Norrie frittered away seven match points before finally closing out Hugo Gaston in straight sets. No. 9 Jannik Sinner also won, topping No. 17 Pablo Carreno Busta 5-7, 7-5, 7-5.

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.