Alcaraz tops Sinner in latest U.S. Open finish ever

2022 US Open - Day 10
Getty Images
0 Comments

NEW YORK — This was a match that would not end. Should not end, one might say. Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, two of the brightest young stars of men’s tennis, traded shots of the highest quality and countless momentum swings across five sterling sets for 5 hours, 15 minutes until Alcaraz finally won the last point at 2:50 a.m., the latest finish in U.S. Open history.

It was “only” a quarterfinal, no trophy at stake, yet was as taut a thriller as this year’s tournament has produced or, likely, will, a tour de force of big cuts on the full sprint and plenty of guts, concluding as a 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-7 (0), 7-5, 6-3 victory for the No. 3-seeded Alcaraz, a 19-year-old from Spain.

“Honestly,” said Alcaraz, who saved a match point in the fourth set, “I still don’t know how I did it.”

He also used words such as “unbelievable” and “amazing.” No hyperbole there.

“This one will hurt for quite a while,” said No. 11 Sinner, a 21-year-old from Italy. “But tomorrow, I will wake up – or today, I will wake up – trying to somehow (take away) only the positives.”

When the 382nd, and final, point was over, Sinner and Alcaraz hugged each other. A handshake at the net would not suffice.

Alcaraz reached his first Grand Slam semifinal and is the youngest man to get that far at the U.S. Open since Pete Sampras won the title at 19 in 1990.

Alcaraz has a chance to move up to No. 1 in the rankings next week, and will face No. 22 Frances Tiafoe of the United States on Friday. The other men’s semifinal that day is No. 5 Casper Ruud of Norway vs. No. 27 Karen Khachanov of Russia.

This match began Wednesday evening at about 9:35 p.m. and easily surpassed the previous mark for latest time of finish at the U.S. Open, which had been 2:26 a.m., shared by three matches.

Alcaraz has been working overtime in New York: His five-set victory over 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic in the fourth round wrapped up at 2:23 a.m. on Tuesday.

“I always say you have to believe in yourself all the time,” Alcaraz said. “The hope is the last thing that you lose.”

After his much more mundane, three-set victory over Andrey Rublev in a quarterfinal that finished at about 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Tiafoe was rather prescient when asked about Alcaraz and Sinner.

“I just hope they play a marathon match, super-long match,” Tiafoe said with a smile, “and they get really tired come Friday.”

Not only did this one run late, it ran long: Only a 5-hour, 26-minute match between Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang in 1992 took more time at the U.S. Open.

Asked afterward how he was feeling physically out there against Sinner, Alcaraz began with a quick response: “I felt great.”

Then he paused, and smiled, before continuing: “Well, probably at the end of the match, I was (at) my end.”

The clock already was past 2 a.m. when Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old American who was the runner-up at the French Open and bowed out in the U.S. Open quarterfinals on Tuesday, spoke for anyone paying attention to Alcaraz vs. Sinner when she tweeted: “this match is insane. I leave at 6am for the airport but I refuse to sleep and miss this. (hash)Sinner (hash)Alcaraz”

Still, even with thousands and thousands of empty seats, there were enough who remained on hand to make as much noise as a full house at times. Both players would wave their rackets or motion with their arms to encourage the fans to get even louder. And, naturally, the fans would oblige.

“Could have finished in three sets. Could have finished in four sets. Could have finished in five sets,” Sinner said. “We both wanted to win, for sure. We both tried our best.”

It was as back-and-forth as could be. The highlights were too many to list. Just one: Alcaraz won one point after extending a rally by wrapping his racket behind his back to make contact with the ball. One more: Alcaraz fell onto his backside, then sprung up to race to smack a backhand that won that point.

After taking the first set, Alcaraz held five set points in the second – but Sinner saved them all.

In the third, Alcaraz broke to lead 6-5 and served for that set – but Sinner broke to force a tiebreaker that he dominated.

In the fourth, it was Sinner who served for the match at 5-4, even coming within a point of victory there – but Alcaraz broke and wound up pushing what already was a masterpiece to a fifth.

And in the fifth, after another memorable shot – a running backhand passing winner that sailed just past Sinner’s outstretched arm – earned a break point and a chance for a 5-3 lead, Alcaraz put a finger to his ear.

He would convert that, then serve it out. When the end did arrive, Alcaraz dropped to his back, his chest heaving, and covered his face with his hand.

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

australian open
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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

us davis cup
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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.