Team USA beats Italy to win inaugural United Cup

2023 United Cup - Sydney: Day 11
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SYDNEY – The United States claimed the inaugural United Cup in convincing fashion with an overpowering display over Italy in the final of the mixed teams event.

No. 9-ranked Taylor Fritz gave the U.S. an unassailable 3-0 lead in the best-of-five matchup when edging former Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini 7-6 (4), 7-6 (7).

The Indian Wells Masters champion failed to convert nine break points but faced none on his own serve and proved the steadier player in the two tiebreakers.

He was mobbed by his teammates at Ken Rosewall Arena after clinching the title for the Americans.

“We came in with really high hopes before the start of the event and I was really happy to be in the position to clinch the match and just the emotions when you win and everyone comes running at you, it is amazing,” Fritz said.

“We have gotten a lot of team bonding this week and it was a lot of fun.”

Jessica Pegula put the U.S. on the path to victory by beating Martina Trevisan 6-4, 6-2, continuing her strong form, which included a win over top-ranked Iga Swiatek on Friday.

Frances Tiafoe, a 2022 US Open semifinalist, extended the lead when Lorenzo Musetti withdrew with a shoulder injury after losing the first set of their match 6-2.

Madison Keys continued the U.S. dominance in the final when defeating Lucia Bronzetti 6-3, 7-2 in what was rendered a dead rubber in terms of the title.

The U.S. were considered favorites for the 18-nation tournament based on the strength of a team where all four singles players were ranked inside the world’s top 20.

Heading into the final, the U.S. had lost just two of the 20 rubbers they played in ties against the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain and Poland.

Dual-Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova defeated Pegula in the opening tie of the event, while 2022 Wimbledon semifinalist Cameron Norrie beat Fritz in three sets on Jan. 4.

Similarly to Fritz’s 7-6, 7-6 victory over Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz on Saturday, the clash between Fritz and Berrettini was dominated by serving.

But Berrettini, who fell in three sets to Stefanos Tsitsipas in a semifinal against Greece on Saturday, lost his composure early in the first tiebreaker and late in the second to give Fritz the victory.

“I had a lot of chances in there and he kept playing so well on those chances, so he made it really tough for me,” Fritz said.

Pegula claimed the first three games against Trevisan and then withstood a challenge from the No. 27-ranked player late in the first set on the way to a solid victory.

No. 3-ranked Pegula said that as her team’s top-ranked player of either sex, she wanted to lead by example.

“I wanted to win because I am the No. 1 American on the team. I wanted to embrace that. I did not want to shy away from that,” she said.

Tiafoe, ranked No. 19, was in a dominant position against Musetti when the Italian ended the match on the opening point of the second set.

The 20-year-old had earlier received medical treatment after dropping serve to trail 2-5 in the opening set.

U.S. coach David Witt, who is also Pegula’s individual coach, praised his players for their teamwork.

“It has been an honor to be a coach of them and enjoy the time we have had together. It has been awesome,” he said.

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.