Naomi Osaka makes Miami quarterfinals, says she’s more grateful

2022 Miami Open - Day 8
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Making the quarterfinals at a tournament used to be no big deal for Naomi Osaka. It was only a shock if it didn’t happen.

Things are a bit different now.

The former world No. 1 has made it through to the quarterfinals at the Miami Open – just the second time she has managed to advance that deep in any tournament over the last year. Osaka beat Alison Riske of the U.S. 6-3, 6-4, moving into a round-of-eight matchup with Danielle Collins.

Osaka’s only other quarterfinal appearance in the last year was at an Australian Open warmup tournament in Melbourne in January. Before that, her most recent quarterfinals trip was at Miami a year ago.

“It’s really funny for me, because last year here I made it to the quarters, too,” Osaka said. “It was after I won Australia and I wasn’t that grateful. I kind of expected to win.”

Wins these days just mean more, after ongoing struggles and time away from the game to deal with her mental health. Her ranking has dipped to No. 77 – it could get somewhere around No. 30 if she wins the Miami title – and she hasn’t won a tournament since that Australian Open last year.

But her stay in Miami so far has been nothing but happiness, with three easy wins – all in straight sets – and the added benefit of a walkover victory in there as well.

“This is really one of the funnest times of my life,” Osaka said. “I’m really grateful.”

Collins, the No. 9 seed from the U.S., needed just over an hour Monday to win her fourth-round match against No. 8 Ons Jabeur, 6-2, 6-4.

The win likely ensured that Collins is locked into the top 10 when the world rankings reset early next week. She could be as high as No. 8 depending on how far others go in the tournament.

Collins is 0-2 in previous matches against Osaka, both straight-set losses on hard courts, one in 2018, the other in 2019.

“When Naomi is at the top of her game, she’s very, very hard to beat,” Collins said.

Daria Saville also got into the quarterfinals, surviving a three-hour match to beat Lucia Bronzetti 5-7, 6-4, 7-5. Saville has climbed a staggering 500 spots in the rankings in about a month and a half; she was 627th in the world in mid-February and could make the top 100 if she wins her next match against No. 22 Belinda Bencic – a 6-2, 6-3 winner Monday over Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

No. 2 Iga Swiatek, who is already assured of moving to No. 1 next week, also rolled into the quarterfinals with a 6-3, 6-1 win over No. 14 Coco Gauff.

“I was in a good mood today and (in a) good zone,” Swiatek said. “I was really focused. Sometimes I have these kind of moments where I don’t even know what the score is. That’s nice, because you’re just focusing on tennis and tactics and technique.”

Swiatek will next play No. 28 Petra Kvitova, a 7-6 (5), 6-4 winner over No. 21 Veronika Kudermetova.

No. 16 Jessica Pegula also advanced; unseeded Anhelina Kalinina retired after Pegula won the first set 6-0. Pegula will play No. 5 Paula Badosa, a 6-2, 6-3 winner over Linda Fruhvirtova in the quarterfinals.

In the men’s third round, Daniil Medvedev is now two wins away from reclaiming the No. 1 ranking.

The top seed in Miami beat Spain’s Pedro Martinez 6-3, 6-4. A trip to the semifinals is all it would take for Medvedev to leapfrog Novak Djokovic – who can’t travel to the U.S. because he isn’t vaccinated against COVID-19 – and return to No. 1.

Next up for Medvedev: American Jenson Brooksby, who rallied from 0-4 down in the third set to upset No. 15 Roberto Bautista Agut 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.

“I competed until the end,” Brooksby said.

No. 11 Taylor Fritz – seeking the so-called “Sunshine Double,” meaning tournament wins at both Indian Wells and Miami – topped good friend Tommy Paul 7-6 (2), 6-4 in an all-American third-round matchup.

No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas beat No. 25 Alex de Minaur, 6-4, 6-3. Defending champion Hubert Hurkacz also advanced, the No. 8 seed fighting past No. 29 Aslan Karatsev 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. No. 14 Carlos Alcaraz got by No. 21 Marin Cilic 6-4, 6-4.

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.