Emma Raducanu beats weather to win first singles match of 2023

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Former U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu overcame wind and rain in a match which stretched over almost four hours to beat Linda Fruhvirtova 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 in her first singles match of 2023 at the ASB Classic.

The match was twice interrupted by rain and the second delay in the deciding set forced the players from the court for almost an hour.

Raducanu returned to take charge by immediately breaking the 17-year-old Fruhvirtova for a 2-0 lead and going on to serve for the match at 5-0.

Fruhvirtova broke back for 5-1, then saved four match points on serve in a tenacious attempt to keep the contest alive.

Raducanu fell behind 0-30 in her next service game but recovered with a series of big serves and finally secured the win in just under 2 1-2 hours of court time, not counting delays.

“I think it’s like four hours later. Honestly, I don’t know what time it is anymore,” Raducanu said. “What a battle. Linda is such a great young player and it was a different dynamic for me because usually I’m the younger one. Going into this match she is and she’s going to be up there for sure, she already is.”

Raducanu, who is 20, was playing her first competitive match in 2 1-2 months and had to fight hard against the Czech teenager, who won a tight first set in 53 minutes.

The first and shorter rain delay came at 4-4 in the first set. Fruhvirtova took an early 2-0 lead in the second set but Raducanu broke back for 2-2 and went on to take the set in 46 minutes.

The second rain break came with Raducanu leading 1-0 in the third set. She won the next four games and eventually the match with a marked lift in aggression. While her serve was strong, her return of serve was decisive and she won 65% of points of Fruhvirtova’s second serve.

Top-seeded American Coco Gauff also had to contend with two lengthy rain delays before beating Germany’s Tatjana Maria 6-4, 6-1.

The seventh-ranked Gauff had let slip a 4-0 lead in the first set and Maria was serving at 4-3 when a cloudburst forced the players from the court. Play resumed briefly and Gauff improved her lead to 5-4 when the second rain break occurred.

Gauff returned to win six straight games to open a 5-0 lead in the second set before Maria held serve again. Gauff calmly served out the match for her first win of the year.

“Honestly, like it wasn’t tough because I was expecting (the rain) to happen,” Gauff said. “In between the rain delays I got a bit of help from my coach.

“But I’m from Florida and we’re kinda used to the stop start, stop start. It’s the tropical weather.”

Raducanu’s second-round opponent will be Slovakia qualifier Viktoria Kuzmova, who upset fourth-seeded Bernarda Pera 6-4, 6-4.

Kuzmova took advantage of a strong first serve to win key points in a tight contest while Pera, the Croatia-born American, struggled in windy conditions and had nine double faults.

After winning the first set, Kuzmova dropped 3-0 behind in the second before reeling off five straight games. She had two match points on Pera’s serve at 5-3 but the 44th-ranked Pera saved both. She saved two more as Kuzmova served for the match at 5-4, finally clinching the match with her ninth ace.

“In this type of weather when it’s really windy I knew everything is possible,” Kuzmova said. “I just tried to stay positive and go for every ball and I’m very happy that I won the second set.”

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.