Venus Williams out of U.S. Open in 1st round for 2nd time

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NEW YORK — The welcome and support for Venus Williams in Arthur Ashe Stadium were not the same as they were for her sister, Serena, a night earlier. Nor was the result.

Venus, who turned 42 in June, has not made any pronouncements about her future in tennis, unlike her younger sibling, and while she has been successful and influential, too – a seven-time Grand Slam champion; a Black woman in a predominantly white sport – the fanfare and attention are not the same.

Playing in front of thousands of empty blue seats in an arena quite silent at the start, Venus bowed out in the first round of the U.S. Open for the second consecutive appearance, losing 6-1, 7-6 (5) to Alison Van Uytvanck.

“She means so much to female tennis. Tennis, in general,” Van Uytvanck said. “She’s a legend.”

This was the 23rd trip to Flushing Meadows for Venus, who made it to the final in 1997 as a teen then won the trophy in 2000 and 2001, and her record 91st time participating in a major tournament.

Venus had never lost in the opening round at the U.S. Open until 2020, then was absent last year. She was off the tour in singles entirely from August 2021 until less than a month ago and is now 0-4 since her return. Her ranking – which 20 years ago was No. 1 – is 1,504th this week.

It was Serena who announced to the world on Aug. 9 that she was getting ready to step away from her playing career, leaving unclear exactly when the end would be, although she hinted it could come at the U.S. Open. So her first-round match fell into the category of a must-see happening, drawing a record crowd of more than 29,000 to the tournament grounds, including more than 23,000 in Ashe – and the atmosphere was uproarious and electric from start to finish of her 6-3, 6-3 victory over Danka Kovinic.

Now Serena, who won six of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles in New York, will move on to a matchup against No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit in Ashe.

And she and Venus will join forces in doubles, teaming up for the first time anywhere since 2018 this week.

Neither Williams attended the other’s first-round singles match; their mother, Oracene, and sister, Isha, were in the guest box each time. They saw Venus struggle from the outset, particularly with her used-to-be-feared serve and groundstrokes that were not calibrated correctly. So many into the net. So many landing long.

After many of her 25 unforced errors, Venus would fiddle with her racket strings or tug on the brim of her visor.

Ten of those miscues came on backhands, far outnumbering her two winners on that side.

There were a half-dozen double-faults, just three aces. She faced 12 break points and dropped four of her 10 service games.

Just 20 minutes in, there was a 4-0 lead for Van Uytvanck, a 28-year-old from Belgium who is ranked 43rd and came into the day with a 1-8 career mark at the U.S. Open.

Venus did make a bit of a stand, breaking to open the second set and holding for 2-0. But that would be her only break of the match and soon enough, Van Uytvanck was putting away a volley winner to close out the win.

A night earlier, Serena was feted during a post-match ceremony that included a video tribute from Oprah Winfrey and a lengthy on-court interview. After this match, Venus simply slung her red equipment bag over her left shoulder, carried her racket in her right hand, and quickly walked off toward the locker room.

Van Uytvanck now meets Clara Burel, who eliminated Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina 6-4, 6-4.

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.