Kyrgios beats 2021 champ Medvedev, discusses mental state

2022 US Open - Day 7
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NEW YORK – Nick Kyrgios sat in the Arthur Ashe Stadium locker room after ending Daniil Medvedev’s U.S. Open title defense and stay at No. 1 in the rankings and felt a mix of pride and relief.

Pride at the big-serving, solid-returning performance that resulted in a 7-6 (11), 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Medvedev, the latest in a series of career-altering results that carried Kyrgios to his first quarterfinal at Flushing Meadows on the heels of his run to his first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon.

Pride, he said, at lifting himself out of “some really tough situations, mentally” and “some really scary places” off the court, which he first revealed in February. Pride, he went on, at succceding in distancing himself from “feeling so depressed all the time, so feeling sorry for myself.”

And relief, Kyrgios explained as he fiddled with the gray Boston Celtics cap he was wearing to his post-match news conference, at being able to come through when the lights are the brightest and stakes the highest, “because there’s just so much pressure every time I go out on court, so much expectation, so much unpredictability of what I can do.”

The 23rd-seeded Kyrgios, a 27-year-old from Australia, never had managed to make it past the third round of the U.S. Open until now, going 0-4 at that stage in the past. He also never has managed to parlay his unquestioned skill into the terrific play with any semblance of the consistency he is displaying lately.

“I’m just glad I’m finally able to show New York my talent,” Kyrgios said after delivering 21 aces and employing his typical go-for-broke style against Medvedev. “I haven’t had too many great trips here.”

He reached his first Grand Slam semifinal, then first Grand Slam final, at the All England Club in July, before losing to Novak Djokovic in the title match. Then Kyrgios won his first ATP title in three years at Washington in August. He followed that up with a victory over Medvedev at a hard-court tournament in Montreal soon after. He leads the ATP Tour in match wins since June.

Medvedev likened the way Kyrgios played Sunday to the level regularly reached by Rafael Nadal, who owns 22 Grand Slam titles and plays his fourth-round match Monday against American Frances Tiafoe, and Djokovic, who has 21 majors but is not at the U.S. Open because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19 and so was not allowed to travel to the United States.

“Didn’t miss a lot. Didn’t really surprise me,” Medvedev said. “If he plays like this ’til end of the tournament, he has all the chances to win it.”

Wouldn’t that be something?

Kyrgios is still Kyrgios during the course of a match, and was again on this evening.

Unsure of the relevant rule, he lost a point by running around the net to hit a ball that was going to land way out, then celebrated what he thought was a terrific play by raising a finger to make an “I’m No. 1” gesture.

During his on-court interview, Kyrgios sheepishly told the crowd: “I still can’t believe the bonehead play I made over here. I thought it was legal. That’s going to be all over `SportsCenter,’ so I’m going to like an idiot.”

He yelled at his guest box. He argued with the chair umpire and drew a warning for cursing. He smacked a ball in anger that ricocheted off a blue wall behind a baseline, coming close to flying over and landing amid spectators.

Medvedev, meanwhile, had been playing well enough to win all nine sets he played in Week 1 and look ready to give himself a shot at becoming the first man to win consecutive trophies in New York since Roger Federer grabbed the last of his five in a row from 2004-08.

But the 26-year-old Russian said he was bothered by a sore throat and generally “felt a little bit sick,” which he attributed to too-powerful air conditioning in the U.S. that he finds “just crazy.”

Now Medvedev – whose victory over Djokovic in the 2021 U.S. Open final ended his bid for the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis since 1969 – will relinquish the top ranking. Three players have a chance to replace him there: Nadal, Carlos Alcaraz and Casper Ruud.

“I feel like tonight was another message that rankings don’t matter,” said Kyrgios, who will meet No. 27 seed Karen Khachanov for a spot in the semifinals.

Kyrgios has said that had he won Wimbledon, he might not have shown up at the U.S. Open at all. If he managed to win a Grand Slam title, he figured, the motivation to earn one would dissipate.

Right before this tournament began, Kyrgios sat down with a small group of reporters and talked about missing home – his brother recently had a child; his mother was ill – and how much he can’t wait to return to Australia after months away. So his first-round match would be a “win-win,” he said: “If I win, it’s more money and another great result. If I lose, I get to go home.”

On Sunday night, Kyrgios was asked whether he still thought that way.

“Three more matches, potentially, then we never have to play tennis again,” came the reply.

And then Kyrgios smiled a wide smile.

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.