Nick Kyrgios would consider 1st-round U.S. Open loss a win for him

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NEW YORK — In one breath, Nick Kyrgios talks about heading into the U.S. Open with as much self-belief and good play as ever, coming off a runner-up finish at Wimbledon and some strong results on hard courts in recent weeks.

In the next, ever an enigma, the 23rd-seeded Kyrgios says he can’t wait for his stay in the Flushing Meadows bracket to be over – perhaps as soon as Monday night, when he faces his “good mate,” fellow Australian and doubles partner Thanasi Kokkinakis – so he can head back home to the other side of the world.

Asked what he takes away from the run at the All England Club in July, Kyrgios said: “The confidence in myself to be able to do it over two weeks. Staying in a single spot for two to three weeks can be exhausting. And to know that I can do that and go about things the right way and take every practice session, every recovery session, the right way, it’s confidence in the back of my mind. But also, I’m the type of player that if I had won Wimbledon, I probably wouldn’t have played the U.S. Open.”

His first-round matchup might otherwise be a much-anticipated highlight of Day 1 at the year’s last Grand Slam tournament, along with appearances by 2021 men’s champion Daniil Medvedev (against Stefan Kozlov) and 2022 French Open finalist Coco Gauff (against Leolia Jeanjean) during the afternoon session in Ashe.

The rest of the schedule will be overshadowed by the contest that precedes Kyrgios vs. Kokkinakis at night: 23-time major champion Serena Williams, in what could be the last singles match of her career, against Danka Kovinic. Kyrgios knows, naturally, how significant that one is, although he doesn’t anticipate watching any as he gets ready to play.

“Obviously it’s a very special moment for her. She’s probably the greatest of all time,” he said. “Whether or not we see anyone live the career that she has? I don’t think that’s possible.”

His career is rather unique itself.

Not in the same sort of remarkable results sort of way, mind you. But the way he carries himself on court — from the between-the-legs shots to the conflicts with opponents or chair umpires or fans — is far from standard.

At Wimbledon, where he made it past the quarterfinals at a major for the first time before losing to Novak Djokovic in a four-set final, there were plenty of big serves and forehands, as always.

Also, though, there was a $10,000 fine for spitting in the direction of a spectator, a contretemps with Stefanos Tsitsipas during and after their match (Tsitsipas said Kyrgios has “a very evil side” and accused him of “constant bullying”) and a back-and-forth about a woman in the stands who Kyrgios said was drunk (and who recently sued him for saying so). And, during that fortnight, word emerged from Australia about a still-pending court case involving an accusation of assault against a former girlfriend.

Djokovic managed to capture the multiple sides of Kyrgios with one lengthy answer at a news conference before their Centre Court matchup last month, remarking that “it seems like, mentally, he’s at a better state than what he was, where he was, some years ago” and noting “he thrives in a big stage” and “he’s got so much talent,” then concluding: “We know what was happening throughout many years with him mentally, emotionally; on and off the court, a lot of different things that were distracting him and he was not being able to get this consistency.”

That last word is not one often associated with the 27-year-old Kyrgios. It is appropriate lately.

Since Wimbledon, as the tour moved to the North American hard courts in the leadup to Flushing Meadows, Kyrgios won a doubles title with Kokkinakis in Atlanta (they were the doubles champions at the Australian Open in January), became the first man to ever win singles and doubles titles in the same year at Washington, and then beat Medvedev en route to the quarterfinals at Montreal, before petering out with a second-round loss to top American Taylor Fritz in Cincinnati.

“I was just so mentally and physically worn out. Mentally I wanted to go out there and give another good performance; my body almost didn’t let me. It was like trying to get a lawn mower started after four or five times. It just wasn’t going,” Kyrgios said. “There’s been so much going on at home – my brother’s had a baby; my mom is sick. It’s just hard to be away. It’s definitely weighing on me every day I’m longer on the road. I just want to go home, kind of thing. But I know this is an important event here, so I’ve just got to put them to the side.”

Some players will never acknowledge looking at the draw to see what could happen down the road in a tournament. Kyrgios is not one of them.

He thinks he and Kokkinakis were placed in a “great section” of the bracket, “so whichever one of us advances kind of has a great opportunity to capitalize.”

Still, Kyrgios added, “Whether I win or lose, it’s going to be the same for me. … It’s a win-win for me. If I win, it’s more money and another great result. If I lose, I get to go home.”

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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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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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.