Serena’s opponent, Kovinic, ‘honored’ to face her at U.S. Open

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NEW YORK — Someone, of course, will end up in the history books as the last opponent of Serena Williams’ stellar career. It could be Danka Kovinic, a 27-year-old from Montenegro who is “honored” to be the first-round U.S. Open foe of someone she remembers watching on TV as a child.

Their match – scheduled for Arthur Ashe Stadium at 7 p.m. on Day 1 of the Grand Slam tournament that Williams has indicated will mark her farewell – is the first time the two women have shared a court.

Kovinic’s reaction when she heard about the matchup from her coach: “I was happy; I won’t lie.”

“It’s a privilege to share the court with Serena,” Kovinic said in an interview at Flushing Meadows. “I just really hope that I can show my good game. Maybe my best game.”

They’ve crossed paths in tour locker rooms over the years, but Kovinic said she never got up the nerve to request a joint practice session.

“I was like, `OK, that’s Serena and I am Danka,”‘ said the 80th-ranked Kovinic, whose best Grand Slam results were reaching the third round at the Australian Open in January and French Open in May before losing at each to a major champion (Iga Swiatek in Melbourne; Simona Halep in Paris). “I didn’t feel like I could approach her to ask.”

Other topics are, or will be, of interest over the coming two weeks, from renewed questions about whether it makes sense for women to use slightly different tennis balls than the men do at Flushing Meadows – this is the only Grand Slam tournament that does that – to Novak Djokovic’s absence due to being unvaccinated against COVID-19, to Rafael Nadal’s pursuit of a 23rd major title despite a recent recovery from a torn abdominal muscle, to Emma Raducanu’s return to the site of her out-of-nowhere run from qualifier to Slam champion a year ago in New York.

And on and on.

But for now, nothing – and no one – in tennis matters as much as Williams.

“Serena is an icon. If I wasn’t playing her, I wouldn’t have all this attention. I’m aware of that,” Kovinic said. “So it’ll be a very nice experience and, at the same moment, maybe a little bit stressful. Of course I will feel pressure. But I will try to turn it into something positive.”

What is she most eager to find out about Williams’ game?

“Everything,” Kovinic said with a chuckle. “I know she hits hard, but I don’t know how different that is from the other girls I play.”

Other players can imagine what these circumstances might feel like for Kovinic, who has a 2-4 career record at the U.S. Open – 104 fewer match wins at the place than 23-time Grand Slam champ Williams, who turns 41 on Sept. 26.

“It’s a tough one,” said Caroline Garcia, who is seeded 17th and could meet Williams if both reach the semifinals. “Danka knows that she’s going to step on court with every single person there against her. When Serena was playing in the past, the atmosphere already was electric, so I can’t imagine what it’ll be out there now.”

Garcia is coming off a title last week at Cincinnati, where Williams lost her opening match 6-4, 6-0 to Raducanu.

“I couldn’t think about who was on the other side of the court, because I knew as soon as I did, my mind would probably start going,” Raducanu said about taking on Williams. “So I just had to take it, look at the ball, not think about anything else.”

Kovinic says she generally tries to worry only about herself and her tactics, rather than what’s happening on the other side of the net.

No matter who is on the other side of the net.

Might be a tad different this time.

“It’s like: I know what to expect,” said Kovinic, the only woman to win a Grand Slam match while representing Montenegro. “And at the same time, I don’t know what to expect.”

Fans who attend the match, or watch on TV, “don’t know much about me,” Kovinic said.

So she offered a bit of a scouting report: Like Williams – well, maybe not quite like Williams, Kovinic said with a laugh – she relies on a big first serve. She can win points with her forehand. She mixes spins.

Her biggest victory probably came against Raducanu in Australia this year.

“She was really, really solid, was staying with you, counterpunching. Then, after you drop one short after a long rally, she would attack,” Raducanu said.

Kovinic has never played a match in Ashe.

Never even hit a ball in the 23,771-capacity stadium, the largest Slam stage, although she was hoping to get the chance to practice there over the weekend. She did venture inside more than a decade ago, as a teen entered in the junior competition, to sit in the upper reaches of the stands and watch Kim Clijsters play.

“It was spectacular,” she said. “From up above, the court looks so tiny. I assume it will be a completely different feeling when I step on the ground down there.”

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.