Serena Williams not done yet; wins 1st match at U.S. Open

Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK — They came from far and wide for Serena – no last name required, befitting someone as much an icon as superstar athlete – to see her practice and play and, it turned out, win a match at the U.S. Open, turning out in record numbers to fill Arthur Ashe Stadium and shout and applaud and pump their fists right along with her.

Serena Williams is not ready to say goodbye just yet. Nor, clearly, are her fans. And she heard them, loud and clear.

In her first match at what is expected to be the last U.S. Open – and last tournament – of her remarkable playing career, even if she insists that she won’t quite say so, Williams overcame a shaky start to overpower Danka Kovinic 6-3, 6-3 amid an atmosphere more akin to a festival than a farewell.

What memory will stick with her the most from the evening?

“When I walked out, the reception was really overwhelming. It was loud and I could feel it in my chest. It was a really good feeling,” said the owner of six U.S. Open championships and 23 Grand Slam titles overall, numbers unsurpassed by any other player in the sport’s professional era.

“It’s a feeling I’ll never forget,” she added. “Yeah, that meant a lot to me.”

This opening outing against Kovinic, a 27-year-old from Montenegro ranked 80th, became an event with a capital “E.” Spike Lee participated in the pre-match coin toss. Former President Bill Clinton was in the stands. So were Mike Tyson and Martina Navratilova, sitting next to each other. And sitting with Dad and Grandma was Williams’ daughter, Olympia, who turns 5 on Thursday, wearing white beads in her hair just like Mom did while winning the U.S. Open for the first time at age 17 back in 1999.

Williams is now 40, and told the world three weeks ago via an essay for Vogue that she was ready to concentrate on having a second child and her venture capital firm.

Asked after her victory whether this will definitively be her final tournament, Williams replied with a knowing smile: “Yeah, I’ve been pretty vague about it, right?”

Then she added: “I’m going to stay vague, because you never know.”

The night session drew 29,000 folks, a high for the tournament – more than 23,000 were in Ashe; thousands more watched on a video screen outside the arena – and the place was as loud as ever. Certainly louder than any other first-round match in memory.

Both players called the decibel level “crazy.” Kovinic said she couldn’t hear the ball come off Williams’ racket strings – or even her own.

Early, Williams was not at her best. Maybe it was the significance of the moment. There were double-faults. Other missed strokes, missed opportunities. She went up 2-0, but then quickly trailed 3-2. Then, suddenly, Williams, looked a lot like the champion she’s been for decades and less like the player who came into this match with a 1-3 record since returning to action in late June after nearly a year off the tour.

“At this point, honestly, everything is a bonus for me, I feel,” Williams said. “It’s good that I was able to get this under my belt. … I’m just not even thinking about that. I’m just thinking about just this moment. I think it’s good for me just to live in the moment now.”

She rolled through the end of that opening set, capping it with a service winner she reacted to with clenched fists and her trademark cry of “Come on!” That was met with thunderous cheers and applause – as was the ending of the 1-hour, 40-minute contest, as if another trophy had been earned.

Instead, there is plenty more work to be done. Williams will play in the second round of singles on Wednesday against No. 2 seed Anett Kontveit of Estonia. And there’s also doubles, too: Williams and her sister, Venus, are entered together in that competition, with their initial match slated for Wednesday or Thursday.

“Just keep supporting me,” Williams told the spectators, “as long as I’m here.”

They surely will. They were there to honor her and show appreciation for what she’s done on the court and off. After watching the victory over Kovinic, spectators held up blue, white or red placards that were distributed at their seats to spell out “We (Heart) Serena.”

After Kovinic was introduced simply by name, making clear to even her what an afterthought she was on this muggy evening, Williams’ entrance was preceded by a tribute video narrated by Queen Latifah, who called the American the “Queen of Queens.” The arena announcer called Williams “the greatest of all time,” and intoned: “This U.S. Open marks the final chapter of her storied tennis history.”

She means a lot to a lot of people. As a tennis player. As a woman. As an African American. As a mother. As a businesswoman.

“When she started out, female athletes weren’t getting recognized. She’s done so much,” said Quintella Thorn, a 68-year-old from Columbus, Georgia, making her eighth trip to the U.S. Open. “And now, she’s …”

“Evolving,” chimed in Thorn’s friend, Cora Monroe, 72, of Shreveport, Louisiana, using the word Williams says she prefers to “retirement.”

Which is why it mattered more than the usual Day 1 at a major tournament. And why the daily program did not make mention of any other of the dozens of athletes in action, showing instead a montage of six images of Williams holding her six U.S. Open trophies above the title: “Serena Williams, A Legacy of Greatness.” And why there was a sense of less importance for matches involving wins for other elite players such as past U.S. Open champions Bianca Andreescu, Andy Murray and Daniil Medvedev, or French Open finalist Coco Gauff, an 18-year-old American.

After her own 6-2, 6-3 victory over Leolia Jeanjean earlier in the day, Gauff looked forward to sitting in Ashe herself to watch Williams, someone she credits with inspiring her to play tennis. Gauff’s original plan was to tune in on TV, but then she decided this was too important to miss.

“Everybody is going to be on her side. I’m going to be cheering for her,” Gauff said. “It’s going to be probably one of the most electric matches that will ever happen in tennis.”

Lived up to the billing.

Now there is more to come for Williams and her supporters.

gain.”

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.