Serena loses 1st match since saying she’s prepared to retire

National Bank Open Toronto - Day 5
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TORONTO — Serena Williams wore her game face when she stepped out into the stadium for her first match since telling the world she is ready to leave professional tennis.

Greeted by a standing ovation, the 23-time Grand Slam champion didn’t smile. She didn’t wave. She took a sip from a plastic bottle as she walked in. Some folks in the crowd captured the moment with the cameras on their cellphones. Others held aloft hand-drawn signs – oh, so many signs – with messages such as “Queen” or “Thank you.”

No one knows exactly how many more matches Williams will play before she puts her rackets away for good, and the 40-year-old American exited the National Bank Open with a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Belinda Bencic.

While there were some familiar fist pumps and yells of “Come on!” during competition, it was only afterward that Williams really allowed her feelings to show, her voice shaking and her eyes welling during an on-court interview when Bencic ceded the spotlight.

“A lot of emotions, obviously,” Williams told spectators who offered her encouragement throughout the clear, 75-degree evening.

The second-round match at the hard-court tuneup for the U.S. Open came a day after she announced “the countdown has begun” on her playing career, saying she wants to have another child and pursue business interests.

She did not state precisely what her last event will be, but did make it sound as if her final farewell will come at the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 29 in New York. Williams has won the singles title at Flushing Meadows a half-dozen times – first in 1999; most recently in 2014 – to go along with seven championships apiece at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, plus three at the French Open.

“It’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours,” Williams said after the match.

“I’m terrible at goodbyes,” she added, her hand on her chest, “but goodbye, Toronto!”

Next up on her schedule is the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati next week, another event that serves as preparation for the year’s last Grand Slam tournament.

Williams, a three-time champion in Canada, started this match, fittingly enough, with an ace. Delivered another later in that game, too, showing off the superb serve that helped her to so many match victories, so many tournament titles, so many weeks at No. 1 in the rankings.

That elite ability showed up occasionally against Bencic, whether the trio of unreturnable serves to close out that opening game or a later putaway swinging volley accented with a shout and a tug on the brim of her white visor.

But because of a leg injury that sidelined her for the last half of 2021 and first half of 2022, she was playing for only the third time in the past 12 months. There were signs of that, as well, and of why Williams is no longer the dominant force she was for so long.

The breaks of her serve that were never quite so frequent when she was younger and at the height of her powers. The not-quite-on-target groundstrokes. The inability to offer up too much resistance while receiving serve; she only earned one break point in the first set, missing a return long to fritter away that chance, and none in the second.

“I wish I could have played better,” Williams said, “but Belinda played so well today.”

It did not help Williams that she was facing an opponent 15 years her junior and quite talented, to boot: Bencic is ranked 12th, won a gold medal for Switzerland at the Tokyo Olympics last year and has been a Grand Slam semifinalist.

“It’s always an honor to be on the court with her,” Bencic said, “and that’s why I think tonight is about her.”

Bencic took home the Toronto trophy at age 18 in 2015, when she eliminated Williams in the semifinals to earn the distinction of being the youngest woman to beat a player many consider, as one homemade poster in the stands declared, the “GOAT” – the greatest of all-time.

In the late match, Bianca Andreescu – the final Canadian left in the singles draw – beat Alize Cornet 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. Andreescu won the tournament in 2019 when Williams retired in the final match because of back problems.

Bencic advanced to face two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, who beat Kaia Kanepi 6-4, 6-4. Seeded players who left the draw included No. 2 Anett Kontaveit, No. 4 Paula Badosa, No. 5 Ons Jabeur, No. 13 Leylah Fernandez and No. 16 Jelena Ostapenko.

Jabeur, the Wimbledon runner-up last month, stopped in the second set against Zheng Qinwen because of abdominal pain. Badosa cited muscle cramping for her mid-match retirement while trailing Yulia Putintseva.

Fernandez, the Canadian who was the U.S. Open runner-up last year, lost 7-6 (4), 6-1 to Beatriz Haddad Maia, while Alison Riske-Amritraj defeated 2017 French Open champion Ostapenko 7-6 (2), 0-6, 7-5.

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.