2021 runner-up Fernandez, No. 3 Sakkari ousted at U.S. Open

2022 US Open - Day 3
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NEW YORK – The last two women’s champions were already out of the U.S. Open and now the 2021 runner-up and another semifinalist are gone.

Top players are falling fast in Flushing Meadows, and Serena Williams took care of another one.

Hours before Williams beat No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit, third-seeded Maria Sakkari was ousted 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 by Wang Xiyu of China in the second round.

Then, minutes after Williams’ victory, No. 14 Leylah Fernandez was knocked off 6-3, 7-6 (3) by Liudmila Samsonova, a year after the Canadian lost to Emma Raducanu in the final.

Fernandez only recently returned to action after missing much of the summer with a stress fracture in her right foot. She would have played Williams if both reached the fourth round but knew that would be difficult, estimating her game was only about 30%.

“It’s hard to get to the highest level, but it’s so easy to get back down and that’s what happening right now,” Fernandez said.

It’s not just happening to her.

Raducanu and two-time winner Naomi Osaka were eliminated Tuesday night in the first round. That left Bianca Andreescu, who beat Williams in the 2019 final, as the most recent U.S. Open women’s champion still in the field.

Andreescu was set to face No. 15 seed Beatriz Haddad Maia on Wednesday night.

Sakkari reached two Grand Slam semifinals last year but has had a difficult time backing up her success in 2022, acknowledging this week that she struggled to handle a higher profile that came with her rise to No. 3 in the rankings. She said some days she didn’t enjoy tennis and didn’t even want to get out of bed.

The Greek said she was happier coming into this tournament but her game just wasn’t quite good enough against the 75th-ranked Wang, who advanced past the second round of a major for the first time.

“It’s disappointing, it hurts, because I was feeling better, I was enjoying myself, feeling good on the court and it was just very disappointing that my level was that low today,” Sakkari said.

No. 12 Coco Gauff and 20th-seeded Madison Keys avoided the trouble, setting up a third-round matchup between the Americans. Gauff beat Elena Gabriela Ruse 6-2, 7-6 (4), while 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Keys outlasted Camili Giorgi 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6).

Gauff was two points from dropping the second set at 5-3 before the 18-year old rallied, something she said demonstrates an aspect of her game that wasn’t there early in the season but could make the French Open finalist a threat now.

“Today, down love-30, 5-3, definitely could have threw it in the can and got ready for the third set. Same at 15-40. But I didn’t,” Gauff said. “I feel like that shows growth. I feel like in the past, those are games I would have lost. Yeah, it’s about learning, and I think I’m learning.”

Three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray rebounded quickly after dropping the first set to power past American Emilio Nava 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-0 and set up a third-round meeting with No. 13 seed Matteo Berrettini.

No. 23 Nick Kyrgios overcame France’s Benjamin Bonzi and the smell of marijuana that bothered him inside Louis Armstrong Stadium. The Wimbledon runner-up already knows the challenge presented by the New York noise, but this time it was by its scent.

“People don’t know, I’m a heavy asthmatic,” Kyrgios said after his 7-6 (3), 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 victory. “When I’m running side to side, I’m struggling to breathe. Probably not something I want to be breathing in in between points.”

Coming off her own run to the Wimbledon finals, No. 5 Ons Jabeur matched her best U.S. Open result with a 7-5, 6-2 victory over Elizabeth Mandlik, the daughter of 1985 champion Hana Mandlikova. Jabeur lost in the third round in each of her last three trips to New York.

“I have a mission,” Jabeur said. “I’m No. 5 in the world, so for me I’m trying to represent that number as much as I can so I can really improve my game and I can really continue and improve my ranking, hopefully.”

She will play American Shelby Rogers, the No. 31 seed who beat Viktoria Kuzmova 7-5, 6-1.

Defending men’s champion Daniil Medvedev followed Williams on Arthur Ashe Stadium. A win over Arthur Rinderknech of France would sent him into a third-round matchup against Wu Yibing, the first Chinese man to win a U.S. Open match in the professional era, which began in 1968.

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.