Gasquet beats Norrie in Auckland ATP final

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — French veteran Richard Gasquet added another milestone in a career of extraordinary longevity when he beat Cameron Norrie 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 at the ASB Classic to claim his 16th ATP Tour title.

The 36-year-old Gasquet has just begun his 20th year on tour and came into his first Auckland final as a substantial underdog to 12th-ranked Norrie, who was a finalist in Auckland four years ago. Gasquet is ranked 67 and recently passed 900 weeks in the top 100.

Gasquet scrambled for points throughout the match and came up with an outstanding final set to deny Norrie the title in his “home” tournament. Norrie was raised in New Zealand and has dreamed since childhood of winning the Auckland tournament.

Gasquet also has had a long-time dream of playing in New Zealand. As a fan of rugby he has been an admirer of New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team and thought of New Zealand often in another sporting context.

“It’s my first time here in New Zealand but I really love rugby and I’m a big fan,” Gasquet said. “I talked a lot to French (rugby) players about how special it was to play here in New Zealand and in Auckland. I grew up watching the (All Blacks’) haka, even at the Stade de France.

“I always wanted to play here but I couldn’t do it while I was coming through. It’s 20 years on the tour and finally I came here.”

Gasquet said the first set was “crazy” and he couldn’t make a point. He was on the back foot through most of the set after Norrie broke him in the fourth game. But he showed the fight that he kept up throughout the match, breaking back in the ninth game being broken again and conceding the set in 42 minutes.

Norrie again seemed to have the upper hand at the start of the second set. His first serve was potent and he was easily able to move the Frenchman around the court.

But Gasquet chased everything and pulled off some magnificent winners, ripping backhands down the line and eventually breaking Norrie’s serve in the fifth game. He held on, surviving break points, to win the set and level the match.

Norrie seemed to have the crucial advantage when he broke Gasquet in the second game of the third set. Again, Gasquet held on against all odds, breaking back in the seventh game.

He then broke again in the ninth game, coming up with a magnificent cross-court forehand on break point. That allowed him to serve for the set and he clinched the title on his first match point.

“The last time I won was in 2018. I am 37 this year, so when I came last week, if you were to tell me next Saturday I would win here, I wouldn’t believe it,” Gasquet said. “It’s an amazing title for me, especially now at my age. I really didn’t think I would win again.”

The margins in the match were tiny. Gasquet had eight break-point chances in the deciding set and converted four, Norrie had nine and converted three.

“I wanted that one really bad but all credit to Richard, he hung in there and played better than me down the stretch,” the British player said.

“For me, I had an amazing week. I grew up here watching the tournament, a lot of friends and family here and everyone was supporting me which was great. I really wanted to win the title but for me today makes me even more hungry and I’ll be back and hopefully get the title next year.”

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.