Emma Raducanu injures ankle ahead of Australian Open

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Emma Raducanu blamed slippery indoor courts for an ankle injury which forced her to withdraw from the ASB Bank Tennis Classic less than two weeks before the start of the Australian Open.

The 2021 U.S. Open champion was in tears after retiring in the third set of her second-round match against Slovakian qualifier Viktoria Kusmova.

The British player slipped late in the second set and then summoned the trainer who heavily strapped her left ankle during a lengthy injury break. The 20-year-old Radacanu attempted to continue and was serving in the first game of the third set when she tearfully indicated she could not play on.

Matches at the Auckland WTA Tour event were moved indoors for the second straight day because of heavy rain.

“It’s difficult to take,” Raducanu said. “I’ve put a lot of physical work in the last few months and I’ve been feeling good and optimistic. So to be stopped by a freak injury, rolling an ankle, is pretty disappointing. In the first week as well, I thought I was playing some pretty decent tennis. The courts were incredibly slick, like very slippery. So to be honest it’s not a surprise that this happens to someone. It’s out of my control and after a very long day of waiting around.”

Raducanu was marked as one of tennis’ up-and-coming stars when she won at Flushing Meadows, but her career since has been dogged by injuries. She retired from matches four times in 2022 and most recently has had to contend with a wrist injury.

Venus Williams couldn’t convert a 5-3 lead in the third set as she lost to Zhu Lin of China 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 in a match which stretched over nearly seven hours because of rain.

The 42-year-old Williams fought through every moment of the second-round match which began outdoors after noon and ended indoors near 7 p.m., and which contained 13 service breaks.

Williams, starting her 30th year on the WTA Tour, won her first tour match in nearly two years when she beat Katie Volynets in the first round of the Auckland tournament. She played only four matches in 2022 and was hoping to progress to the second round of a tournament for the first time since 2019.

Williams was 2-1 down in the first set when the first rain break of more than an hour occurred but returned to break Zhu’s serve twice and take a 1-0 lead.

Zhu led 4-2 in the second set when the rain returned and forced the players indoors onto a court without spectators. Zhu held serve for 5-2 then broke Williams again to level the match.

Williams broke first for 2-1 in the third set and extended that advantage to 5-3. But Zhu broke back, held serve and broke Williams again to advance.

Williams later questioned the decision to start the match outdoors when rain was imminent and delay in moving indoors.

“Being the first match is like being a guinea pig,” Williams said. “It was not great. I’ve played a lot of matches in my life and I’ve played through some intense delays but it was definitely like two separate matches.

“Outside, it was really tough. It was rainy, windy. It was tennis but it was more about surviving instead of playing great. Indoors, it was completely different but I got to hit a lot of balls so that’s important.”

Top-seeded American Coco Gauff will face Zhu in the quarterfinals after a 6-4, 6-4 win over compatriot Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open champion.

The seventh-ranked Gauff also had to play indoors and beat Kenin in just under 90 minutes, leveling their head-to-head record after Kenin beat Gauff en route to the Australian Open title.

Seventh-seeded Danka Kovinic beat former champion Lauren Davis 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 and qualifier Rebeka Masarova beat Anna Blinkova 6-1, 6-4.

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.