Swiatek downs Osaka to win Miami Open, earns world No. 1

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. ⁠— Iga Swiatek ended her journey to the women’s No. 1 ranking in fitting fashion.

Swiatek continued her searing start to 2022, beating Naomi Osaka 6-4, 6-0 to win the women’s title at the Miami Open and extend her winning streak to 17 matches.

Swiatek, who will replace the now-retired Ashleigh Barty at No. 1 in the women’s rankings officially when the points are updated Monday, also completed the so-called Sunshine Double – winning both Indian Wells and Miami. She’s the fourth woman to do so, joining Victoria Azarenka (2016), Kim Clijsters (2005) and Steffi Graf (1994 and 1996).

“This tournament has so much energy,” Swiatek said.

Swiatek’s homeland is Poland, which has seen more than 2 million people enter from war-torn Ukraine in recent weeks. Swiatek took a moment during her trophy ceremony to acknowledge that those refugees are on her mind.

“As I was doing in my previous speeches at Doha and Indian Wells, I want to say to Ukraine to stay strong,” Swiatek said. “Everything’s going to get better.”

Swiatek broke Osaka for a 3-2 lead in the first set, hanging on from there to win a 52-minute slugfest that saw the opening game – on Osaka’s serve – feature seven deuces and go for 10 minutes.

The second set was a completely different story. Break, hold, break, hold, break, hold and that was that, as Swiatek finished off her ninth consecutive straight-sets victory. It was her third title of 2022 and her sixth consecutive win in a final, a streak that started at the delayed French Open in 2020.

Swiatek, who never faced a single break point, earned $1,231,245 for the win. Osaka earned $646,110 for making the final.

Osaka came into the tournament ranked No. 77 in the world, though certainly didn’t play like there are 76 better women out there on tour right now – beating seeded players in Angelique Kerber, Danielle Collins and Belinda Bencic on her way to the final.

Osaka was as high as No. 13 earlier this year, saw her ranking take a huge hit when she was knocked out early from the Australian Open, and will likely rise to No. 36 when the numbers are officially updated Monday.

Miami was her first final since winning the 2021 Australian Open.

“It makes me feel so good, makes so many feel so good, to see you happy on the court again,” tournament director James Blake told Osaka during the trophy ceremony.

As the cheers from fans got louder after Blake said that, Osaka eventually broke into a wide smile.

Osaka has openly talked about struggling with depression and working on her mental health since winning the 2018 U.S. Open over Serena Williams. She withdrew from last year’s French Open, left last year’s U.S. Open in tears and was brought to tears again by the comment from a spectator at Indian Wells last month.

But in Miami, it was all happiness.

“I want to dedicate this one to all the people that support me, my fans,” Osaka said as she held the crystal runner-up trophy. “I know I haven’t been in this position for a little minute. I know this isn’t the outcome you guys wanted, but I’m having fun up here.”

Swiatek also had kind words for Osaka after the match: “This sport is better with you,” the soon-to-be women’s No. 1 told the former women’s No. 1.

Swiatek would still be No. 2 in the rankings if Barty hadn’t retired or hadn’t asked to be removed from the list. But the gap between 1 and 2 in that scenario would have been much closer – Barty led by Swiatek by 2,204 points when the Miami Open began and would have seen that margin sliced down to 269 points on Monday.

The men’s final in Miami is Sunday when No. 6 seed Casper Ruud will face No. 14 Carlos Alcaraz.

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.