Novak Djokovic worried about leg, bothered by heckler in Australia

2023 Australian Open - Day 4
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MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic propped up his left shoe on a courtside sign so he could stretch out a hamstring that he acknowledged afterward concerns him. He grimaced while flexing the muscle after one point, hopped on his right leg to keep weight off the left after another. He took a medical timeout while a trainer re-taped him during the second set – which Djokovic would go on to drop.

As if he needed another distraction, Djokovic was flustered enough by a heckler that he asked chair umpire Fergus Murphy to have the spectator removed from Rod Laver Arena, telling the official: “The guy’s drunk out of his mind. … He’s been provoking. He just wants to get in my head.”

As Djokovic summed up afterward: “It was a lot happening tonight.”

Here’s what did not happen at the Australian Open: Djokovic did not lose his way entirely and, most importantly, he did not lose in the second round, which is what happened to both No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal and No. 2 seed Casper Ruud.

Seeking a 10th trophy at Melbourne Park, to add to his own record, and a 22nd Grand Slam title overall, to equal Nadal’s, Djokovic put everything aside and beat 191st-ranked French qualifier Enzo Couacaud 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-0. It was Djokovic’s 23rd consecutive win at the Australian Open, a streak that paused a year ago when he couldn’t play in the tournament because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I am worried. I mean, I cannot say that I’m not. I have reason to be worried,” Djokovic said about the hamstring, noting that he needs to avoid practicing on days before matches.

“There’s not much more to talk about,” Djokovic said. “There’s two choices: Leave it or keep going. So I’m going to keep going.”

A group of people dressed in red-and-white striped shirts straight out of “Where’s Waldo?” left the arena after Djokovic pleaded his case with Murphy about one of them giving him a particularly hard time.

“What I have a problem with is when somebody’s crossing the line, numerous times … and saying things that were not respectful at all,” Djokovic explained at his news conference, adding that it had been going on for more than 1 1/2 hours. “I had enough, you know?”

This did not shape up as a contest of much intrigue, given that the fourth-seeded Djokovic has done all that he has done, while Couacaud entered with a career mark of 2-5. And whatever Couacaud’s chances were beforehand seemed to dim just four games in, when he turned his right ankle and required a visit from a trainer.

But Couacaud overcame that and played freely, conjuring some terrific shotmaking.

“You just have to deal with it. One of those circumstances and situations where things are maybe not going perfectly your way,” Djokovic said. “But that’s sport.”

He was speaking about how his foe was playing, yet the sentiment captured the night well.

There was a bit of Djokovic’s usual interplay with the crowd when he got his game in order. After breaking to lead 2-0 in the last set, he jogged around his side of the court, as if to show his opponent, and everyone else, just how well he was feeling and just how well he was playing.

At another moment, he basked in roars of approval by pointing his index finger to his right ear, asking for more.

Couacaud managed to have some fun, too, when he briefly made things a bit interesting, celebrating his claim of the second set by pointing to the court as if to indicate, “This is my house!”

Which, of course, it is not. The place belongs to Djokovic, who will play No. 27 Grigor Dimitrov next, and knows that two highly ranked contenders are no longer possible obstacles.

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.