Serena Williams loses to Raducanu; U.S. Open next

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MASON, Ohio — The second stop on Serena Williams’ farewell tour was a short one.

The 40-year-old Williams fell to 0-2 in matches since announcing “the countdown has begun” on her career, losing 6-4, 6-0 to U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu in the Western & Southern Open.

Williams said last week in a Vogue magazine essay and an Instagram post that her career was winding down, although she did not explicitly say the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 29 in New York, would be her last tournament.

The Cincinnati event was the second U.S. Open tune-up for Williams, and the next time she takes the court will be at Flushing Meadows. She lost to Belinda Bencic in straight sets last week in Toronto. A day before the announcement, Williams beat Nuria Parrizas-Diaz for her first match win since the 2021 French Open.

Williams is a 23-time Grand Slam champion, most recently in 2017 at the Australian Open, when she was pregnant with daughter Olympia. She said wanting to expand her family was a big reason she plans to step away.

Raducanu, ranked No. 19 in the world, was sharp as she dispatched Williams – and quieted the vocally pro-Williams crowd – in 1 hour, 5 minutes.

“I can’t believe I just played Serena Williams,” the 19-year-old Raducanu said. “It’s something that I think I’m really fortunate to have been able to do, and for our careers to have crossed when there’s such a big (age) gap and watching her growing up, it was an amazing experience to just play her.”

Williams did not speak to reporters after the match.

Fans cheered heartily when Williams was introduced, and again when she won her first point on a Raducanu error in the second game. Williams yelled in frustration when she double-faulted and screamed even louder and pumped her fist when she won the third game of the first set.

“I just knew how important every single point was because you let up a little bit, yeah, she’s going to be all over you,” Raducanu said. “She’s just such a legend.”

Down 2-0 in the first set, she fought back within 4-3 and then 5-4, but Raducanu closed out the set at love. Raducanu rolled from there, with Williams looking frustrated and even resigned near the end.

Williams was sidelined for a year by a torn hamstring suffered last year at Wimbledon, and her late-career injuries have contributed to inconsistency on the court.

The players thrilled the crowd with an exciting rally in the fifth game of the second set, won by Williams with a forehand volley. But she double-faulted on the next point on the way to being broken.

She briskly left the court after the match, waving to the crowd as she exited.

“I think that the crowd was pretty electric,” Raducanu said. “The stadium was really packed, and even if they were cheering for Serena … I was prepared for that.”

Raducanu, who faces veteran Victoria Azarenka in the second round, has not won a title since her out-of-nowhere triumph at the U.S. Open last year.

In the men’s draw, top-ranked Daniil Medvedev advanced to the third round, beating 24th-ranked Botic van de Zandschlup 6-4, 7-5.

Medvedev, banned by Wimbledon for his country’s invasion of Ukraine, was coming off a second-round loss to Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios last week in Canada.

Kyrgios beat Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 7-5, 6-4.

Four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka was eliminated by Shuai Zhang, 6-4, 7-5.

The tournament lost another big name, Coco Gauff, when she retired from her match against qualifier Marie Bouzkova with a left ankle injury. Gauff had her ankle taped after the first set and dropped out after the first game of the second set.

Karolina Pliskova advanced with a 7-5, 6-1 win over Williams’ older sister, Venus. Bencic fell to Sorana Cirstea, 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-4.

Rafael Nadal, sidelined since withdrawing from Wimbledon with an abdominal tear, practiced before a large crowd. The 22-time Grand Slam champion is scheduled to play Borna Corcic.

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.