Novak Djokovic shows he’s back in top form with Italian Open title

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ROME — Just in time.

Novak Djokovic raised his first trophy of the year at the Italian Open and showed that he’s back in top form exactly a week before the French Open starts.

After missing a large portion of the season because he wasn’t vaccinated against the coronavirus, the top-ranked Djokovic beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-0, 7-6 (5) for his sixth Rome title.

“I’ve been building my form the last few weeks,” Djokovic said. “It couldn’t be better timing coming into Roland Garros.”

“Perfect scenario for me,” Djokovic added later.

Earlier on the red clay, Iga Swiatek defended the women’s title by overwhelming Ons Jabeur 6-2, 6-2 to extend her winning streak to 28 matches.

Djokovic didn’t drop a set all week, having won his 1,000th career match over Casper Ruud in the semifinals.

Djokovic, who was deported because of his un-vaccinated status ahead of the Australian Open, hadn’t won a tournament since raising the Paris Masters trophy in November.

“This year it was a particular situation. With everything that happened in Australia, it took some time,” Djokovic said. “I found my best shape here. I’m going to Paris with a lot of confidence.”

It was Djokovic’s 12th final at the Foro Italico.

“This court has always been very, very special,” he said. “It’s given me joy when I really needed positive sensations. Whenever my form was a bit down I’ve found energy in this city.”

Djokovic needed only a half hour to win the opening set, during which Tsitsipas got so frustrated at one point that he banged his racket against his bag during a changeover and mangled the frame.

After falling behind early in the second set, Djokovic stepped up his game when Tsitsipas served for the set at 5-3.

First, Djokovic ripped a forehand cross-court return winner that landed on the line, then on the next point he pushed Tsitsipas from corner to corner before the fifth-ranked Greek player resorted to a drop shot attempt that landed in the net. Djokovic celebrated with a series of fist pumps as the crowd chanted his nickname: “NO-LE, NO-LE.”

When a backhand from Tsitsipas sailed wide on the first match point, Djokovic simply raised his arms and smiled.

During the trophy ceremony, Djokovic made a special dedication: “Today at 4 (p.m.) when we started this match, my son Stefan, who is 7 years old, was playing his first tennis match. I hope he won. This is for him.”

The 20-time Grand Slam champion reached the final of his home Serbia Open last month. He was beaten by 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz in the Madrid Open semifinals last week.

Djokovic produced 24 winners to Tsitsipas’ eight and had only 14 unforced errors to Tsitsipas’ 20.

Swiatek was a surprise champion at the French Open in 2020 when she was ranked No. 54. Now the 20-year-old Polish player is the favorite to add a second title at Roland Garros when the year’s second Grand Slam starts.

“I already know that I did some great stuff this season, so I feel like I can just play freely,” Swiatek said. “For sure the expectations around are higher, but I never had a problem to cut it off and not to think about it. Also I’m gaining experience at that.”

Swiatek has won five straight titles during her run.

“All these tournaments that I’ve won seem pretty surreal right now,” she said.

Jabeur was on a streak of her own with 11 consecutive wins entering the final after her Madrid Open title last week but the Tunisian’s crafty game of drop shots and spins proved no match for Swiatek’s swift movement and accurate groundstrokes.

“Iga is the No. 1 for a reason,” Jabeur said. “She’s really the leader here on tour. I personally have a lot to learn from her.”

When a backhand from Jabeur landed in the net to end it, Swiatek sunk down to the clay and covered her face with her hands as she bent over.

The last player to win more consecutive matches was Justine Henin, who won 32 straight over 2007 and 2008. The all-time longest streak belongs to Martina Navratilova, who had a run of 74 in 1984.

Swiatek last defeat came in mid-February in Dubai to Jelena Ostapenko in a third-set tiebreaker. She has won 42 of the last 43 sets she’s contested.

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.