Sakkari edges Pegula, Sabalenka beats Jabeur at WTA Finals

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Maria Sakkari couldn’t help but smile a wide smile after taking a pair of tiebreakers to edge Jessica Pegula across more than two hours of big-hitting baseline action in front of a sparse crowd as round-robin singles play began at the WTA Finals.

Sure, the No.5-ranked Sakkari was excited about the 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4) victory on a temporary indoor hard court at Dickies Arena against No. 3 Pegula in the season-ending tournament, just eight days after losing to the American in the final of another event.

For Sakkari, who will face Aryna Sabalenka next, this was of more importance: She got to hang out with her parents and grandmother – the first time in 4 1/2 years her mom’s mom had been in the stands to see the 27-year-old from Greece compete.

“She was like, ‘Wow. That was a very high-level match.’ She knows tennis really well, because my grandfather was a coach, then my mom was a player, so she traveled with her on the tour. It’s not like she’s watching her first tennis match ever,” a beaming Sakkari said. “It’s very nice just to have her around. To be with her. To spend my time a little bit with her and my parents. It’s nice, sometimes, to (be with) people that you love and people that are very close to you and were (there) since the beginning.”

Grandma hadn’t been on hand for one of Sakkari’s matches since she lost to Kiki Bertens in the first round of the Madrid Open in May 2018.

“Nice to have here, for sure – and see me winning,” Sakkari said.

Later on Day 1, Sabalenka came back to beat two-time Grand Slam runner-up Ons Jabeur 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5 after being two points from defeat. The No. 2-ranked Jabeur led 5-3 in the tiebreaker, but Sabalenka grabbed the next four points in a row to force a third set.

“Don’t look at the score,” Sabalenka said she told herself. “Just keep trying.”

A resigned Jabeur, who meets Pegula on Wednesday in the round-robin format, said afterward: “I missed my chances.”

In the match that closed out Monday’s schedule, Pegula and Coco Gauff were beaten in doubles by Xu Yifan and Yang Zhaoxuan 6-4, 4-6, 10-7 in a champion’s tiebreaker that wrapped up a little past midnight. In the day’s other doubles match, defending champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova defeated Desirae Krawczyk and Demi Schuurs 6-4, 6-3.

On Oct. 23, in the final of the Guadalajara Open, Pegula beat Sakkari 6-2, 6-3 to claim the first WTA 1000 title of her career.

“It’s never easy against Jess,” said Sakkari, who was a two-time Grand Slam semifinalist last season but only once made it as far as the fourth round at a major in 2022.

That was part of why Sakkari has described going through what she termed a “dark phase,” one she snapped out of by reminding herself that she is still a top player.

This rematch against Pegula was filled with plenty of momentum swings.

Sakkari won the first two games. Pegula took the next three. Sakkari broke to lead 6-5 and serve for the first set. Pegula broke right back when Sakkari flubbed a drop shot, then chucked a ball and walked over to a towel holder and gave it a kick.

The second set followed a similar pattern. Sakkari led 3-0. Soon, it was 3-all.

Sakkari had an opportunity to close out her first win against a top-five opponent this year when she held two match points at 6-5 in second. But she dropped a backhand into the net on the first, and Pegula delivered a backhand winner on the second.

“Maybe I was a little bit too passive,” Sakkari said.

In the second tiebreaker, she said she realized she needed to be more aggressive, “because I felt like if you’re passive, then the ball does nothing” on the slow court.

Sakkari converted her third match point on a forehand into the net by Pegula, who had won 11 of her preceding 13 matches – with both losses to No. 1-ranked Iga Swiatek.

Sinner stuns top-ranked Alcaraz in Miami Open semifinals

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Tenth-seeded Jannik Sinner of Italy stunned top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz on Friday night in the Miami Open semifinals, rallying from a set down to beat the defending champion, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-2 in a three-hour thriller.

Sinner ended Alcaraz’s winning streak at 10 matches. Sinner’s powerfully steady baseline game wore down Alcaraz, who appeared to be cramping early in the decisive third set while he also dealt with an apparent finger injury. He will lose the No. 1 ranking to Novak Djokovic.

Sinner, the 21-year-old who made the Miami Open final last year but hasn’t been past the quarterfinals of a major, will face fourth-seeded Daniil Medvedev of Russia in the championship match Sunday. Medvedev has beaten Sinner in all five meetings.

Alcaraz had been so dominant recently, he hadn’t lost a set since February before Sinner’s rally in the Miami humidity. The Alcaraz hype train has been so breakaway NBA stars Luka Doncic and Jimmy Butler showed up to watch the Spanish star from the teal seats.

Alcaraz also fought Sinner in Indian Wells in the semifinals, and it was a taut match but not quite like this. These two young guns are poised for a long and spectacular rivalry. Sinner’s victory ended Alcaraz’ hope of becoming the first man since Roger Federer in 2017 to win the Sunshine Double if Indian Wells and Miami.

Medvedev beat fellow Russian Karen Khachanov 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-3 on the same day Wimbledon announced Russians will be allowed back.

Medvedev has won 23 of 24 matches – the lone loss to Alcaraz – and is in his fifth straight final.

Also Friday, No. 15 seed Petra Kvitova beat unseeded Sorana Cirstea 7-5, 6-3 in the second women’s semifinal. Kvitova will face Elena Rybakina in the final.

Alcaraz prevailed in the first set in a tiebreaker but that took a lot out of Alcaraz’ 19-year-old legs. Between points in the third set, Alcaraz was stretching noticeably during the third set, trying to stave off cramps and waved to the crowd for support.

Despite Alcaraz getting the second set back on serve, Sinner stunned Alcaraz in the ninth game, breaking him at love to go up 5-4 and then closing it out. Alcaraz had won 21 straight sets.

An ATP trainer came out to attend to Alcaraz midway through the second set, examining one of his fingers before the cramps set in.

Wimbledon drops ban on Russians, lets them play as neutrals

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LONDON – Russian and Belarusian players will be able to compete at Wimbledon as neutral athletes after the All England Club on Friday reversed its ban from last year.

The players must sign declarations of neutrality and comply with “appropriate conditions,” including not expressing support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“This was an incredibly difficult decision, not taken lightly or without a great deal of consideration for those who will be impacted,” All England Club chairman Ian Hewitt said in a statement.

The players cannot receive funding from the Russian or Belarusian states, including sponsorship from companies operated or controlled by the states.

Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and Russian players Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev are among the players who can return.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned the reversal as “immoral.”

“Has Russia ceased its aggression or atrocities? No, it’s just that Wimbledon decided to accommodate two accomplices in crime. I call on the UK government to deny visas to their players,” Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

Other tennis tournaments have allowed Russian and Belarusian players to compete as neutral athletes – their nationalities are not listed in the brackets, official results or graphics on TV broadcasts of matches. But, as in some other team sports, Russia and Belarus were not permitted to participate in the Billie Jean King Cup or Davis Cup by the International Tennis Federation.

“We also consider alignment between the Grand Slams to be increasingly important in the current tennis environment,” the All England Club said.

The same conditions will apply for Lawn Tennis Association tournaments used by players as grass-court warmups for the sport’s oldest Grand Slam tournament.

The women’s and men’s professional tennis tours last year imposed heavy fines on the LTA and threatened to pull its tournaments. The effect of being expelled from the tours, the LTA said, “would be very damaging and far reaching for the game in our country.”

The ATP and WTA had also responded to last year’s ban by not awarding ranking points for Wimbledon – an unprecedented move against the prestigious event.

“There was a strong and very disappointing reaction from some governing bodies in tennis to the position taken by the All England Club and the LTA last year with consequences which, if continued, would be damaging to the interests of players, fans, The Championships and British tennis,” the club said.

This year’s Wimbledon tournament will start on July 3. The women’s final is scheduled for July 15 and the men’s final on July 16.

“It’s a beautiful tournament, beautiful Grand Slam. I’m really happy that I’m going to be able to play there this year,” Medvedev said Friday after he won his semifinal match at the Miami Open over fellow Russian Karen Khachanov. “I don’t know what the crowd reaction is going to be, I cannot control it, but I will be happy to play there in front of all the people. Hopefully on big courts. Hopefully have some big, amazing matches.”

Also speaking in Miami Gardens, Florida, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova said Russia and Belarusian players should continue to be banned from both Wimbledon and the Olympics.

“For sure I’m just more worried about the Ukrainian people and players. I appreciate that Wimbledon had a tough time last year not giving the (ranking) points, that Belarusians and Russians didn’t play. And I think they shouldn’t be allowed, actually,” Kvitova said. “I’m just still a bit on the Ukrainian side of this.”

Martina Navratilova, who won a record nine Wimbledon singles titles, said she supported the change. She wrote on Twitter, “as I said last year, this was a bad decision and I am glad it was reversed.”

The All England Club said the conditions were developed through talks with the British government, the LTA and “international stakeholder bodies in tennis.”

The club’s statement described “personal player declarations” but didn’t provide details. The LTA said the players and support staff “will be required to sign neutrality declarations” similar to those used in other sports.

In a joint statement, the ATP and WTA said they were satisfied with the outcome.

“It has taken a collaborative effort across the sport to arrive at a workable solution, which protects the fairness of the game,” the tours said. “This remains an extremely difficult situation, and we would like to thank Wimbledon and the LTA for their efforts in reaching this outcome, while reiterating our unequivocal condemnation of Russia’s war on Ukraine.”