Alcaraz beats Djokovic to reach Madrid Open final

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MADRID — Rafael Nadal one day. Novak Djokovic the next.

The list of victims of Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz keeps growing.

And so does the hype over tennis’ newest sensation.

After defeating his idol Nadal in the quarterfinals on Friday, the 19-year-old Alcaraz rallied to beat top-ranked Djokovic 6-7 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) after more than 3 1/2 hours on Saturday to reach the Madrid Open final.

“It was one of those matches to enjoy,” Alcaraz said. “Despite the tension, despite being the semifinals, being 7-6 in the third-set tiebreaker … I’ve enjoyed it. Until the last point I was being able to smile.”

In the women’s final, Ons Jabeur of Tunisia won her biggest career title by defeating Jessica Pegula of the U.S. in three sets.

Jabeur, the first Arab woman in the top 10, won 7-5, 0-6, 6-3 for her second career title.

“When I had the match point, I was like, I had to win it from the beginning, otherwise it’s going to be very tough for me,” Jabeur said. “But I’m very happy and trying to realize that I won today, really.”

Pegula, a one-time tour winner, will reach a career-high No. 11 ranking on Monday.

Alcaraz became the first player to beat Nadal and Djokovic at the same clay-court event. He converted his third match point in front of a raucous home crowd on the Caja Magica center court.

“It’s a spectacular feeling right now,” Alcaraz said. “I’m very excited to be able to play these kind of matches, to be able to beat Rafa yesterday, to be able to beat the No. 1 today.”

A win on Sunday will give Alcaraz his fourth title this season, the most of any player.

He will face defending champion Alexander Zverev, who defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. The second-seeded German player converted three of his five break opportunities to clinch the victory in nearly two hours in match that ended after 1 a.m. local time (2300 GMT).

Zverev is now 19-2 in Madrid, where he also won the title in 2018.

“This is my favorite court in the world,” Zverev said. “This is the Caja Magica and it is doing magic for me because I came into this tournament playing really bad. I was not very confident I didn’t win a lot of matches this year but this court brings something out of me.”

The fourth-seeded Tsitsipas had beaten Zverev in the Monte Carlo semifinals earlier this year.

Alcaraz lost both matches he played against Zverev, all last year on hard courts.

“I know 99.999% percent of the people will be against me tomorrow but this is completely fine,” he said with a smile. “I’m still thankful that you guys are here at 1:10 a.m.. It’s going to be a fun match tomorrow.”

Zverev returned to the empty center court after his match to practice his service.

Alcaraz, the youngest player in the top 10 since Nadal in 2005, has won this year in Miami, Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona.

Djokovic remains without a title this season as he continues to try to regain his best form going into his title defense at the French Open this month.

“Congrats to him. He held his nerves very well,” Djokovic said. “For somebody of his age to play so maturely and courageously is impressive. He deserved to win.”

Alcaraz, the youngest ever to reach the Madrid semifinals, took an early lead in the first set but Djokovic rallied.

The Spaniard took the second set after Djokovic wasted three break opportunities to serve for the match, and kept the pressure on during the third until finally capitalizing on one of his many chances in the tiebreaker.

The match winner came was one of Alcaraz’s more than 30 forehand winners that kept Djokovic on the defensive throughout. Alcaraz had 51 winners to Djokovic’s 24.

“It was so close,” Alcaraz said. “He had the chances to break my serve at the end of the second set. In the first set as well it was so close in the tiebreak. Honestly I don’t know what made the difference.”

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.