Garcia tops Kasatkina for final spot in semis of WTA Finals

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Caroline Garcia spiked a banana on her bench while a first-set lead was slipping away, and Daria Kasatkina later whacked a couple of balls hard into the court with her racket after losing on serve.

All that was before a tense third set filled with brilliant shot-making and all the accompanying shouts and fist pumps – with the fourth semifinal spot in the WTA Finals on the line.

Garcia claimed that last opening in the season-ending event with a thrilling 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(5) round-robin victory.

The sixth-ranked Frenchwoman became the first in 30 matches this season to beat Kasatkina after losing the first set to the No. 8 player.

A third set that included a nine-deuce game with Kasatkina finally holding serve for a 5-4 lead ended in the tiebreaker when a scrambling Kasatkina put a volley into the net on Garcia’s second match point in an 80-minute set.

“It was a crazy match,” Garcia said after 2 hours, 27 minutes of mostly battling from the baseline. “It was the best match of the group.”

Garcia and Kasatkina played the winner-take-all match after both lost to top-ranked Iga Swiatek and beat 18-year-old American Coco Gauff in group play.

Swiatek, the U.S. Open and French Open winner this year, had already clinched the top spot in the group before beating Gauff 6-3, 6-0. The 21-year-old from Poland dropped just 13 games in three straight-sets victories.

Swiatek will face No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka and fifth-ranked Maria Sakkari will meet Garcia in the semifinals on the indoor hard court at Dickies Arena.

The final is an event that was moved to Texas from China over concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former government official there of sexual assault. Coronavirus restrictions also played a part in the decision.

Gauff and doubles partner Jessica Pegula each went 0-6 in singles and doubles. They were the first Americans to make their WTA Finals debut in singles and doubles since Lindsay Davenport in 1994.

Pegula said she would take a few days to decide about going ahead with another quick turnaround for the Billie Jean King Cup sin Glasgow, Scotland. Swiatek has already said she would skip it.

Gauff seemed ready to welcome the event as a way to forget about her week in Texas and move on to the International Tennis Federation’s 12-nation team competition named in honor of King.

“I’ve never lost so much so fast,” Gauff said. “Going to the BJK Cup will be better. I think right now my mindset is just on that and try not to dwell too much on this. I’m kind of grateful to have that tournament because it would be an awful way to end the year on this.”

Garcia, the only player among the WTA Finals qualifiers to beat Swiatek this year, has reached the semifinals in both WTA Finals appearances. The first was in 2017. She was ranked 45th when she beat Swiatek at the Poland Open in June.

“I was already very proud to be in the top eight,” Garcia said. “It proves that this year was definitely a good year. Started very far for being in the top 10 or top eight, and made my way to it and playing a lot of matches. A lot of wins.”

Garcia tossed one of her bananas in disgust while losing 15 of the last 17 points in the first set as a 4-2 lead evaporated. The 29-year-old responded early in the second, winning six consecutive games to take a 1-0 lead in the third set.

One of those victories was a break for a 3-1 lead in the second, with Kasatkina slamming the ball that had been in play into the court, then grabbing the one she didn’t use for the serve and doing the same.

Anger turned to celebration in the third with the shots being pulled off by both players.

Kasatkina broke for 3-3 by running down a drop shot and flicking a crosscourt forehand winner, then hitting a running backhand winner past Garcia in one of the few times either came to the net.

Even though Garcia couldn’t convert any of the six break points in the 13-minute game at 4-4, she had one of her best shots when she ran down a drop shot for a tight-angled forehand crosscourt winner.

“The third set was, I cannot see there was a big difference between us,” said Kasatkina, whose best Grand Slam showing was a semifinal run in Paris in June. “We were just, you know, going shoulder by shoulder, and then just one or two points decided everything.”

US Open ‘very hopeful’ unvaccinated Novak Djokovic can play

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After Novak Djokovic withdrew from tournaments in Florida and California because he still can’t travel to the United States as a foreign citizen who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, a U.S. Tennis Association spokesman said Saturday the group is “very hopeful” the top-ranked player will be allowed into the country for the U.S. Open in August.

“Policies concerning access to the United States are determined by the White House. We are very hopeful that the policy preventing Novak Djokovic from entering the United States will be rescinded, or lapse, in the near future,” the USTA’s Chris Widmaier wrote to The Associated Press. “No COVID-19 restrictions are in place at the U.S. Open for any player, fan or other attendee. Novak, one of our sport’s great champions, would be welcome to compete at the 2023 U.S. Open.”

The two-week U.S. Open starts in Flushing Meadows on Aug. 28.

Djokovic, a 35-year-old from Serbia, was unable to get to New York for the season’s last Grand Slam tournament in 2022, when he also missed the Miami Open and BNP Paribas Open because he never got the shots for the illness caused by the coronavirus.

A six-time Miami Open champion, Djokovic is out of the field for the event that begins next week, a spokesman for the Miami Open said Saturday.

Djokovic is No. 1 in the ATP rankings and is tied with Rafael Nadal – who is injured and also won’t be in Miami – at 22 Grand Slam titles, the record for most won by a man. In 2023, Djokovic is 15-1 with two titles, including at the Australian Open in January.

But he will now have missed the first two Masters 1000 events of the season. He also pulled out of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, which ends this weekend.

Back in in April 2020, as the pandemic raged, Djokovic said he was opposed to needing to be vaccinated to travel. He later said he would not get inoculated even if it meant missing tournaments.

In January 2022, he tried to get an exemption to compete at the Australian Open and traveled to Melbourne. But after his case went to court, his visa was revoked and Djokovic was deported from the country.

Pandemic restrictions have been eased in Australia since, and Djokovic returned this year without a problem and won the season’s first major championship.

Meanwhile, Nadal has been sidelined since hurting his left hip flexor during a second-round loss at Melbourne Park. He is aiming to return to action at the Monte Carlo Masters next month.

Alcaraz wins Indian Wells over Medvedev, regains No. 1 rank

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Carlos Alcaraz defeated Daniil Medvedev 6-3, 6-2 on Sunday to win the BNP Paribas Open title and regain the world’s No. 1 ranking.

The 19-year-old Spaniard will move from second to first in the ATP Tour rankings on Monday, displacing Novak Djokovic. The Serb withdrew from Indian Wells before the tournament began when he couldn’t gain entry to the U.S. because he’s unvaccinated for COVID-19.

“For me, it’s a dream come true again,” Alcaraz said. “Obviously being in front of such great players like Novak, it’s an amazing feeling.”

“I would say this has been the perfect tournament,” he said.

In the women’s final, Elena Rybakina beat Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (11), 6-4 and handed the world’s second-ranked player just her second loss this year.

Last year, Alcaraz became the youngest man to reach No. 1 in ATP history after his title at the U.S. Open.

He achieved another mark in the third round at Indian Wells. That’s when Alcaraz notched his 100th career match victory, the second-quickest player behind John McEnroe to do so.

Alcaraz also became the first man to win the tournament without dropping a set since Roger Federer in 2017 and the youngest man to win the title in the desert.

“I really trust in every shot that I hit,” he said. “If I miss, I don’t mind.”

Alcaraz hit 19 winners and had 10 unforced errors while keeping Medvedev off-balance with a steady array of serve-and-volley and drop shots. The teenager never faced a break point while opening leads of 3-0 in the first set and 4-0 in the second.

“What I improve a lot is to don’t take the pressure, just to play relaxed,” Alcaraz said. “That’s why I show a great level, because I feel like I have no pressure. I enjoy. I’m playing relaxed.”

Medvedev’s 19-match winning streak ended. It went back to his title run in Rotterdam in February. He then won tournaments in Doha and Dubai.

“I want to congratulate you for the work you have done in the last few months,” Alcaraz told his opponent. “Winning three titles in a row and reaching the finals here is an amazing achievement.”

Alcaraz and Rybakina earned $1,262,220 each for their wins.

Rybakina carried the momentum from her straight-set semifinal upset of top-ranked Iga Swiatek into the final and beat Sabalenka for the first time in five career meetings.

For the first time in their budding rivalry, the match didn’t go three sets. Sabalenka went the distance to beat Rybakina in the Australian Open final in January. In that match, Sabalenka fired 17 aces and rallied from a set down to win her first Grand Slam title.

This time, the 10th-seeded Rybakina had seven aces and No. 2 seed Sabalenka committed 10 double faults. Sabalenka won just 11 of 35 second-serve points.

“I would say that I was super disappointed with my serve, so I was back to old habits,” she said. “I was like a little bit overreacting on things, and I wasn’t there in the first two games in the second set.”

Rybakina broke for leads of 2-0 and 5-2 in the second set before Sabalenka closed to 5-4. But Rybakina served out the victory in just over two hours.

“This tiebreak was really epic, I would say, with all these double faults and nerves,” Rybakina said. “In the end, it was just focusing on every point and try to fight till the end.”

Rybakina improved her match record to 16-4 this year; Sabalenka fell to 17-2.

“This tough loss will motivate me more because I don’t like to lose in the finals,” Sabalenka said. “This is the worst.”

During the victory ceremony, Rybakina, the current Wimbledon champion, told the crowd it was the first time she’d beaten Sabalenka.

Sabalenka stepped forward, took the mic and said, “I will make sure it was the last one.”

Then she smiled.