Serena Williams earns first win of season in Toronto

Getty Images
28 Comments

TORONTO — Serena Williams hadn’t won in so long, she said she couldn’t even remember the feeling.

She picked up her first victory since the 2021 French Open, beating Nuria Parrizas-Diaz 6-3, 6-4 at the women’s National Bank Open.

“I’m just happy to get a win. It’s been a very long time, I forgot what that felt like,” Williams said.

It’s just the second tournament of the season for the 40-year-old Williams, who returned to competition at Wimbledon just over a month ago. The 23-time Grand Slam champion fell in the first round to Harmony Tan in three sets at the All England Club.

Before then, she last competed at the 2021 Wimbledon tournament, where she retired in the middle of her first match due to a torn hamstring suffered after slipping on the grass surface.

Williams, who will turn 41 at the end of September, will next face either 12th-ranked Belinda Bencic or Tereza Martincova.

Williams has won this tournament three times and reached the final in her last appearance at the hardcourt event in 2019, losing to Bianca Andreescu when she was forced to stop because of injury.

But Williams has played little since and knows she needs time on the court.

“I feel good, I felt like I competed well today. I think that’s what I needed to do, is just compete,” she said. “Mentally, I’m getting there. I’m not where I normally am (or) where I want to be. Any match I play, whether I win or lose, helps me.

“I haven’t played a lot in the last year, (even) two years. I think that helps me physically. I feel much better in practice, it’s just getting that to the court. Literally, I’m the kind of person (where) it takes one or two things and then it clicks.”

Williams started out strong, taking the first two games with relative ease.

Parrizas-Diaz tied it 2-2, but despite Williams’ struggles at certain points, the 31-year-old Spaniard couldn’t find enough of a consistent flow to get ahead. Williams found her rhythm, mixing solid touch with her signature power and putting shot after shot out of Parrizas-Diaz’s reach.

Williams’ effort had the fans on their feet roaring and some even bowing.

Williams won the final three games to take the first set, then surged ahead in the second after the 57th-ranked Parrizas-Diaz took a 4-3 lead. She endured a nine-deuce game to hold serve and even the set, then broke in the next game before serving out the victory.

While Williams says the end of her remarkable career is in sight, she’s enjoying her time and staying in the moment.

“I’m getting closer to the light. Lately, that’s been it, I can’t wait to get to that light,” she said, adding the light represents “freedom.”

“I love playing though, it’s amazing,” she added. “I can’t do this forever, so sometimes you just want to try your best to enjoy the moments and do the best that you can.”

In other opening-round action, Canada’s Leylah Fernandez made her return to the court with a 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-3 win over Australian Storm Sanders.

Fernandez was back in action for the first time since suffering a stress fracture in her foot during a quarterfinal loss to Martina Trevisan on May 31. The 13th-ranked Fernandez will next play Brazil’s Beatriz Maia on Wednesday.

Also, Sloane Stephens defeated Sofia Kenan in three sets, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5, in a three-hour match that was interrupted twice by rain.

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

australian open
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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

us davis cup
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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.