New dad Rafael Nadal doesn’t care about playing for the No. 1 rank

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PARIS — Rafael Nadal is a different man. He’s losing sleep over his newborn baby and not so much the No. 1 ranking.

Even with all of his absences, Nadal has a shot at finishing the season as the world No. 1. He has racked up 5,820 points, trailing only the top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz, who has 6,650. But Nadal made clear on Tuesday what his priorities were when he was peppered with questions about fighting for the year-end No. 1 spot.

There will be no fight.

Nadal has achieved the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking five times, tied with Roger Federer, and trailing only Novak Djokovic (7) and Pete Sampras (6).

“I don’t fight to be No. 1,” Nadal said at a Paris Masters news conference. “Something that I said since long time ago: I will not fight anymore to be No. 1. I did in the past. I achieved that goal a couple of times in my career that I have been very, very happy and proud about. But I am in a moment of my tennis career that I don’t fight to be No. 1.”

For now, he wants to be a No. 1 dad.

He’s come to Paris for his first tournament since his wife Maria Francisca Perello gave birth to their first child – a boy – in early October. Nadal admitted he’s approaching things differently now that he’s a father.

“It’s quite interesting how, even after (knowing him only) two or three weeks, leave your son at home and not be able to see him . . . you start missing him,” Nadal said. “We are lucky today that, with the technology, everything, we can do video calls any time that you want.”

Nadal received a first-round bye and will face Tommy Paul or Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round on Wednesday. He hasn’t played competitively since September when he partnered with Federer in doubles at the Laver Cup to celebrate the last match of the retiring Swiss great.

Nadal won the Australian Open and French Open this year to achieve a record 22 Grand Slam singles titles, one more than Djokovic and two more than Federer. But the vibe on tour is a changing of the guard, with 36-year-old Nadal passing the baton to 19-year-old Alcaraz, at least in their Spain homeland.

Nadal has struggled with injuries and played only 10 tournaments. He suffered a stress fracture in his ribs at Indian Wells in March. Then an abdominal injury forced him to pull out of the Wimbledon semifinals and affected him the whole summer.

“It’s obvious that when I was No. 1 for the first time in my career in 2008, I really wanted to be there,” Nadal said, “because I felt that 2005, ’06, ’07, including ’08, I was doing amazing results, winning a lot of tournaments, having a lot of points on the ranking system.

“Today is a different story for me. I don’t know how many events I played, like 10, and I finished eight. Difficult to be No. 1 like this. But happy to be in that position that says when I was playing, I was playing well.”

Alcaraz became the youngest men’s No. 1 in the 50-year history of the ATP rankings in September when he won his first major crown at the U.S. Open.

“It was my dream to win a Grand Slam, to become No. 1 of the world, but I didn’t expect to do that at 19 years old,” Alcaraz said. “Everything came so fast, faster than I could imagine.”

Alcaraz is set to clinch the year-end No. 1 for the first time. He could be the first player to achieve that outside the Big Four of Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Andy Murray since Andy Roddick in 2003.

No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 4 Casper Ruud have an outside chance at No. 1 as 1,000 points go to the Paris Masters winner and 1,500 points for a perfect run at the ATP Finals in Turin this month.

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.