Bianca Andreescu’s ‘Aha moment’ made Australian Open win possible

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Bianca Andreescu traces the path that brought her back to the tennis tour after a mental health break – and, on Monday, put her back in the win column thanks to beating a seeded opponent at the Australian Open – to what she calls “an `Aha’ moment” on a beach in Costa Rica during a spiritual retreat nearly a year ago.

Here, then, is how the 22-year-old Canadian described that epiphany in an interview with The Associated Press at Melbourne Park: “I am meant to play the sport and use it as a platform to be an inspiration for others.”

Andreescu, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 U.S. Open final as a teenager, went through a series of health issues, including catching COVID-19, that derailed her career in 2020 and slowed her in 2021, too. She also split from her long-time coach. All in all, there was a lot going on – after beating No. 25 seed Marie Bouzkova 6-2, 6-4 at Court 3, Andreescu used the word “hectic” to describe that period – and she went six months without playing a match from October 2021 to April 2022, including sitting out last year’s Australian Open.

“That was when I started to ask myself the question: Is this worth it? Is this life worth it? Because I was very stressed out with many things: People in my life; the way I was looking at myself in the mirror,” Andreescu said. “Just holding a tennis racket, I didn’t feel happy anymore. Or content. Because usually, going on the court is my getaway place – and it stopped feeling like that.”

She realized she needed to re-evaluate where she was and where she was headed.

“Do I keep pushing and pushing and hope for the best? Or do I take a step back? So that’s what I did. I took a break. And I did other things outside of tennis. I did a lot of charity work. I traveled to a few places. Hung out with friends I hadn’t hung out with in two or three years. I started playing soccer again. I did some skating. I started martial arts. I did dancing. A bunch of other things. And it really made me appreciate tennis even more,” Andreescu said with a wide smile. “I honestly didn’t know when I was going to pick up a racket again.”

During her time in Costa Rica last February, Andreescu found a new frame of mind.

“I felt much better in 2022 than I did in 2021, when after losses, I felt so discouraged,” she said. “Now I just want to get back on court. I feel very motivated.”

Sure seemed that way against Bouzkova, a U.S. Open quarterfinalist last year.

Andreescu mixed up her shots and overpowered her foe when opting for big cuts on groundstrokes.

“Just didn’t give me much space to breathe and to sort of get my momentum going,” Bouzkova said.

Andreescu said she felt a mix of nerves and relief, because she really wanted to win.

Which she did and now will face 100th-ranked Cristina Bucsa of Spain as the journey continues.

“I like to say what my mom always tells me: `Follow your heart.’ That’s what I did. I have a strong intuition, I would say, and I feel like a lot of other people do. So trust your gut,” Andreescu said, pointing her interlocking fingers toward her heart. “If you don’t feel good in something for a while – I didn’t feel good for two or three months – I would say to take a step back, if you can.”

BIG STEP FOR CHINA’S MEN

Teenage qualifier Shang Juncheng became the first Chinese man to win a main-draw match at the Australian Open in the professional era, beating Germany’s Oscar Otte 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5.

“I think it’s huge for Chinese men’s tennis,” said the 17-year-old Shang, who hit 34 winners. “We have had really good players from the women’s side, but not really big names in the men’s.”

Added Shang: “Hopefully we can do something big in the future.”

Shang, the 2021 U.S. Open junior runner-up, is the first 17-year-old to win his first Grand slam match since current No. 1-ranked Carlos Alcaraz did it at the Australian Open two years ago.

“Quite a big accomplishment,” Shang said. “Looking up to Carlos, he’s the best player in the world right now. Just watching him play on the court really inspires me, inspires the young, young players.”

China placed three men in the main draw of a Grand Slam event for the first time.

Wu Yibing lost his first-round match to France’s Corentin Moutet. Zhang Zhizhen plays American Ben Shelton.

WATCHING THE BILLS

Jessica Pegula prepared for her first-round victory at the Australian Open by watching on TV as the Buffalo Bills edged the Miami Dolphins 34-31 in their opening game of the NFL playoffs.

The No. 3-seeded Pegula, whose parents own the Bills and the NHL’s Sabres, said she woke up and watched most of the second half before going on to defeat Jacqueline Cristian 6-0, 6-1 at Margaret Court Arena.

“It was a tough game. Not the prettiest of wins,” Pegula said about the Bills. “Definitely an ugly win, I think.”

“It’s like first game, playoffs, everyone is kind of nervous, a lot of tension,” she added, likening it to the jitters before an initial match at a Grand Slam tournament.

“It was fun obviously for them to get that win before I went on court,” Pegula said. “It wouldn’t have really affected me, I don’t think, but I would have just been annoyed that they lost.”

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.