Brooksby tops No. 2 Ruud; Jabeur out, too; Djokovic wins

2023 Australian Open - Day 4
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MELBOURNE, Australia – Oh-so-close to completing a straight-set upset of No. 2 seed Casper Ruud at the Australian Open, Jenson Brooksby frittered away three match points, sat down at a changeover and began yelling at himself.

“How?! How?! God!!”

His face was flush, his emotions unhidden, his game unraveling. Soon enough, that set slipped away, as Ruud’s confidence seemed to surge and Brooksby’s collapse momentarily continued. And then, in a blink, Brooksby was back in charge, taking command immediately in the fourth set along the way to a 6-3, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-2 victory over Ruud and a spot in a surprisingly American-filled third round at Melbourne Park.

“I was getting a little more frustrated out there that I didn’t close it out, and my mentality was changing a little bit,” said the 39th-ranked Brooksby, who sipped from little jars of pickle juice in the fourth set at Rod Laver Arena. “Those are the situations you have to handle sometimes in matches, and you’re going to face. I think the biggest question is: How do you respond? I just told myself to reset.”

So leave it to a pair of 20-something Californians to rid the men’s bracket of its two highest seeded players: Brooksby, 22, delivered his unexpected triumph at the same stage and in the same stadium that Mackenzie McDonald, 27, defeated No. 1 seed and defending champion Rafael Nadal a day earlier. That makes this the first Grand Slam tournament since the 2002 Australian Open that the Nos. 1-2 seeds lost before the end of the second round – and the first time since the 1994 French Open that a pair of Americans took out the top two men’s seeds at any Grand Slam tournament.

Nadal owns a men’s-record 22 Grand Slam titles. Ruud was the runner-up at the French Open to Nadal last June and at the U.S. Open to Carlos Alcaraz last September.

Like Ruud, Ons Jabeur reached the finals of two Grand Slam tournaments in 2002. Like Ruud, she came to Australia as the No. 2 seed. And like Ruud, she was bounced in the second round, beaten 6-1, 5-7, 6-1 by 2019 French Open runner-up Marketa Vondrousova in a match that ended at about 1 a.m. on Friday.

That was actually rather mundane compared to what Andy Murray and Thanasi Kokkinakis went through, starting the fifth set of their match at about 3 a.m. Murray ended up with a 4-6, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 7-5 victory that ended just past 4 a.m.

The exits of Nadal and Ruud make nine-time champion Novak Djokovic – who dealt with a persistent heckler and a left hamstring that he says worries him during a four-set victory over 191st-ranked qualifier Enzo Couacaud on Thursday night – even more of a title favorite in his return to Australia after being deported a year ago because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

Also a big deal: The progress of U.S. men through the year’s first major championship. None has won a Grand Slam title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open.

By reaching the third round, Brooksby joined countrymen Michael Mmoh, Ben Shelton, Tommy Paul and J.J. Wolf, who also won Thursday, along with McDonald, No. 16 Frances Tiafoe and No. 29 Sebastian Korda, who all won Wednesday. The highest-seeded American man, though, could not make it that far: No. 8 Taylor Fritz bowed out with a 6-7 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-2 loss to 113th-ranked Australian wild-card entry Alexei Popyrin.

Still, the eight men from the United States remaining are the most into the third round in Australia since the same number did it in 1996.

Mmoh, who lost in qualifying but got into the main draw when another player withdrew, made it this far at a major tournament for the first time by defeating No. 12 Alexander Zverev 6-7 (1), 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

“Life is crazy. Right when you think everything is looking dim, everything is looking dark, there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” the 107th-ranked Mmoh said. “My week is proof of that.”

Shelton, the NCAA champion from the University of Florida participating in just his second Slam, beat qualifier Nicolas Jarry of Chile 7-6 (3), 7-6 (3), 7-5; Paul came back to edge No. 30 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain 6-2, 2-6, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-4; and Wolf breezed past No. 23 Diego Schwartzman of Argentina 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.

Brooksby now plays Paul; Mmoh takes on Wolf.

“Frances is probably my best friend. I grew up with Tommy,” Mmoh said. “I’ve known these guys for so long. I’ve competed with them.”

There was also a big win for an American woman Thursday: 21-year-old qualifier Katie Volynets defeated No. 9-seeded Veronika Kudermetova of Russia 6-4, 2-6, 6-2.

Elsewhere, No. 4 Caroline Garcia beat 2021 U.S. Open finalist Leylah Fernandez 7-6 (5), 7-5, No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka improved her 2023 record to 6-0 by topping Shelby Rogers 6-3, 6-1 after trailing 3-1 early, and No. 19 Ekaterina Alexandrova defeated Taylor Townsend 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.

“I literally have the chills, because the fans here are just incredible,” said Volynets, who reached the third round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. “I’ve never played in a stadium this packed and with that many people keeping the energy up for me. It was awesome.”

Brooksby was supposed to enter the Australian Open a year ago but came down with COVID-19 the day before he was supposed to fly overseas.

“Hopefully this is the first of many many good years here to come,” Brooksby said.

His unusual playing style, including his two-handed backhand volleys, and ability to track down opponent’s shots, were trouble for Ruud, who took a medical timeout after the second set because of a bothersome abdominal muscle.

“He was annoyingly good today,” said Ruud, a 24-year-old Norwegian coached by his father, a former pro player.

The biggest problem for Brooksby was closing this one out. He held a trio of match points while trying to serve for the victory at 5-3 in the third set but could not cash any of them in.

Ruud raced through the end of that set, but Brooksby righted himself in the fourth, jumping out to a 3-0 lead. Brooksby finished things off 1 hour, 15 minutes after his first chance.

When the match ended, Brooksby said, “The first thing that popped to my mind was I was just proud of my mental resolve just to stay focused out there.”

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.