After great start, Carlos Alcaraz heads to Paris among favorites

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MADRID — It’s been a quick rise for Carlos Alcaraz.

It wasn’t long ago that the 19-year-old Spaniard was playing in youth tennis tournaments and talking about his idols Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, and about his dream of one day making it into the top 10 and winning the French Open and Wimbledon.

It was only a year ago that he broke into the top 120 for the first time and began making his way into the main tournaments.

Few at the time could predict what the future held for the young Spaniard. But come next week in Paris, Alcaraz will be among the favorites to win the French Open.

The Spaniard is tennis’ newest sensation and the hottest player on tour this year, considered by many the successor of Nadal.

Alcaraz won the Madrid Open for his tour-leading fourth title of the season, lifting the trophy after back-to-back victories over Nadal, top-ranked Novak Djokovic and third-ranked Alexander Zverev.

“I remember the first time when I was playing, when I was a kid in (the Spanish city of) Murcia, and of course I didn’t imagine at that moment that I was going to be able to reach this level, to be here right now, winning the Madrid Open,” he said.

Alcaraz is the second youngest player to reach the top 10 and second youngest to win two Masters 1000 tournaments. Only Nadal did both at a younger age in 2005 when he was 18.

“I can see him becoming big in a very short time,” fifth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas said. “I’d really like to get to the level he is right now. I think he’s one of the best players in the world, to be honest. He has proved it with consistent results, thriving in the biggest tournaments. There is nothing you can take away from that.”

Alcaraz leads the tour with 28 victories this year, one more than Tsitsipas. His only three losses came against Sebastian Korda in Monte Carlo, Nadal in Indian Wells and Matteo Berrettini in the Australian Open.

He is the youngest player in the history of the ATP Tour to defeat three of the top five players at the same event, and the first to eliminate Nadal and Djokovic at the same clay-court event.

Djokovic and Nadal had only praise for the youngster, with Djokovic saying it was “impressive for somebody of his age to play so maturely and courageously.” Nadal said Spain should celebrate having “an amazing player for a lot of years to come.”

Alcaraz was on the front pages of most sports dailies in Spain, taking the main headlines even though Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid faced each other in the Spanish league derby.

“Blessed,” the AS newspaper said of Alcaraz.

Looking more mature than his age, Alcaraz has impressed with a complete game that is highlighted by a devastating forehand and precise drop shots. He didn’t concede a single break opportunity to Zverev in Sunday’s final in Madrid.

Alcaraz will not play in Rome this week so he can fully heal from a right ankle injury he sustained in the quarterfinals against Nadal in the Spanish capital.

The youngster will head to Roland Garros, where Nadal is a record 13-time champion, at a career-high No. 6. He reached the third round in Paris in his debut last year, losing to Jan-Lennard Struff in three sets.

“I think that people are going to think that I’m going to be one of the favorites to win Roland Garros,” Alcaraz said. “I don’t see it as pressure, I see it as motivation. I really look forward to going to Paris, to fighting for the Grand Slam, and I am really looking forward to showing my great level in a Grand Slam as well.”

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.