Fritz, Keys give U.S. 2-0 lead at mixed teams United Cup

2023 United Cup - Sydney: Day 1
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SYDNEY – Taylor Fritz and Madison Keys gave the United States a 2-0 lead over Czech Republic at the new United Cup mixed teams tournament.

Fritz broke Jiri Lehecka’s serve in the ninth game of the second set and went on to beat the Czech player 6-3, 6-4. Keys followed that up with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Marie Bouzkova in the next Group C match at Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney.

Two singles matches – one men’s and one women’s – will be played over each of two days, with a mixed doubles to conclude the five-match encounter on the second day.

“In a team event, first match of the year, there are always some nerves coming out, so it is great to come out and get the team ahead,” Fritz said. “Hopefully loosen everyone else up. It is a tough position to play if behind, so it is really good for the team.”

Fritz saved both break points he faced in his first head-to-head meeting with the 21-year-old Lehecka.

“When I was down, I felt that I was coming up with big serves when I needed the free points,” Fritz said. “I don’t think from the ground I maybe played my best, but when I was down break point or 0-30, I was coming up with big serves.”

The U.S. is the third-seeded team in the tournament and also features world No. 3 Jessica Pegula and men’s No. 19 Frances Tiafoe.

On Friday in singles against the Czechs, Pegula will take on two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and Tiafor plays Tomas Machac. Pegula and Fritz are scheduled to play mixed doubles for the U.S.

The inaugural United Cup has teams from 18 countries competing in Brisbane, Perth and Sydney through to Jan. 4. The three city champions and the next-best performing country from the group stage will meet at Ken Rosewall Arena from Jan. 6 to 8 to determine the overall winner.

Top-seeded Greece is led by world No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari, who is ranked No. 6 on the women’s side. World No. 1 Iga Swiatek and men’s No. 11 Hubert Hurkacz will lead second-seeded Poland.

Greece lived up to its top billing by taking a 2-0 lead over Bulgaria in Perth, Western Australia. Tsitsipas beat Grigor Dimitrov 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4). Earlier, Despina Papamichail come from a set and a break down to defeat Isabella Shinikova 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

In night play in Sydney, Cameron Norrie beat Alex de Minaur after the Australian double-faulted to set up match point, helping give Norrie a 6-3, 6-3 win and Britain a 1-0 lead. Katie Swan made it a 2-0 lead for Britain after the first day when she beat Zoe Hives 6-4, 6-3.

In other results, the Italy-Brazil matchup at Brisbane’s Pat Rafter Arena was level at 1-1 after the first day. Beatriz Haddad Maia gave Brazil a 1-0 lead with a 6-2, 6-0 win over Martina Trevisan before Italy’s Lorenzo Musetti beat Felipe Meligeni Alves 6-3, 6-4.

“We played in the middle of last year and it was three sets,” Haddad Maia said of Trevisan. “I worked very hard to push myself to play my best tennis. I worked very hard in the preseason to be as ready as I could today.”

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.