Swiatek, Jabeur will meet in 1st U.S. Open final for both

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NEW YORK — Getting to a Grand Slam final is no longer new to Ons Jabeur. She figures it’s time to add a major trophy to her list of groundbreaking accomplishments.

And she’s sure she is more ready to do it at the U.S. Open than she was at Wimbledon two months ago.

Jabeur reached a second consecutive Slam title match without needing to produce her best tennis, taking full advantage of a shaky showing by Caroline Garcia to win their semifinal at Flushing Meadows 6-1, 6-3.

“Feels more real, to be honest with you, just to be in the final again. At Wimbledon, I was kind of just living the dream, and I couldn’t believe it,” Jabeur said after ending No. 17 Garcia’s 13-match winning streak, which included a victory over Coco Gauff. “Now maybe I know what to do.”

With a championship on the line, Jabeur will go up against No. 1-ranked Iga Swiatek, who grabbed the last four games, and 16 of the last 20 points, to come back and beat No. 6 Aryna Sabalenka 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.

The first step for Swiatek to turn things around came when she headed to the locker room after the first set – to use the bathroom and think about what to adjust on court.

“I needed to get it together,” said Swiatek, a 21-year-old from Poland who already owns two trophies from the French Open’s red clay, including one this June, but never had been past the fourth round on New York’s hard courts.

Sabalenka, meanwhile, dropped to 0-3 in Slam semifinals for her career and 12-11 in three-setters this year. She broke for a 4-2 lead in the third set – and 17 minutes later, it was over, as Swiatek surged to the finish.

“She was just going for it,” said Sabalenka, who wore large blue mirrored sunglasses and a black cap pulled low to her news conference. “She was hitting every ball and putting me under pressure and playing really aggressively.”

Swiatek has emerged as a dominant figure in women’s tennis, with a 37-match winning streak that brought her six titles in one stretch. If she can defeat Jabeur, Swiatek will become the first woman since Angelique Kerber in 2016 to win two majors in one season.

The No. 5-seeded Jabeur, a 28-year-old from Tunisia, was the runner-up at the All England Club in July and now will be the first African woman to participate in a final at the U.S. Open in the professional era, which dates to 1968.

“After Wimbledon, (there was) a lot of pressure on me,” Jabeur said following a win that took barely more than an hour, “and I’m really relieved that I can back up my results.”

In the men’s semifinals: No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain vs. No. 22 Frances Tiafoe of the United States, and No. 5 Casper Ruud of Norway vs. No. 27 Karen Khachanov of Russia.

With four-time major champion Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in her guest box – they traded thumbs-up signals at match’s end – Jabeur improved to 6-0 in semifinals this season and earned her tour-leading 92nd victory in all since the start of 2021. No. 91 came when she defeated Ajla Tomljanovic, who eliminated Serena Williams in the third round.

To Jabeur’s surprise, and delight, she heard the victory over Tomljanovic was drawing viewers back home, even though it there also was a Champions League game between Juventus and Paris St. Germain on TV.

“In Tunisia, it’s all about soccer,” she said. “But people were not watching (that) game, they were watching my game, which is impressive to me.”

Just one example of how she is changing views about tennis in her country – and on a continent.

Since pro players were first admitted to major tennis tournaments, never had an African woman or Arab woman been to a Slam final until she did that at the All England Club before losing to Elena Rybakina.

At the 2020 Australian Open, she became the first Arab woman to reach the quarterfinals at a major. Last year, she was the first Arab player to break into the top 10 of the men’s or women’s rankings and first with a WTA title.

“Definitely saying out loud what I want to do is part of me achieving things,” said Jabeur, who dropped to her knees and let out a yell when the semifinal ended, then laid on her back.

“I’m sure it’s a lot of pressure on her shoulders,” said Garcia, a 28-year-old from France. “But she looks like to be managing it really well.”

On this 75-degree (24 Celsius) evening under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Jabeur finished with 21 winners – after one was aided by a fortuitous net cord, Jabeur put up a hand to apologize, then blew a kiss to the sky – and just 15 unforced errors.

She delivered eight aces. She went 4 for 4 on break chances and didn’t face any.

After a moment of silence to commemorate the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Garcia won the coin toss and chose to serve. She got broken right away, thanks to four mistakes. Most concerning and perhaps most reflective of nerves Garcia later acknowledged were there: She dumped what should have been an easy put-away volley into the bottom of the net.

It was a rather inauspicious start for Garcia, who hadn’t lost a set on the way to her debut in a Slam semifinal.

“Mentally,” said Jabeur, who travels with a sports psychologist, “I was so ready.”

She plans to be again. Swiatek will stand in the way.

Aryna Sabalenka wins 1st Grand Slam title at Australian Open

2023 Australian Open - Day 13
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MELBOURNE, Australia – One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself – and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.’ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

“I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions,” she said, “and win this one.”

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy – she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check – she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now – is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph (195 kph), Sabalenka’s at 119 mph (192 kph).

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”

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.”