Jessica Pegula eyes 1st Grand Slam semifinal at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — At the draw ceremony for the season-ending WTA Finals in October, the emcee called Jessica Pegula to the front of the room and asked the 28-year-old American about her championship at an event in Mexico a handful of days earlier.

He called it the “biggest title” of her career. Pegula politely corrected him: “Biggest title so far,” she said, emphasizing those last two words.

Pegula chuckled when asked about that exchange during an interview with The Associated Press.

“I didn’t mean to say that, but that’s good that I said that,” she said. “So far, that IS my biggest title, so that’s factual and true – but also, hopefully, definitely not the last.”

Pegula’s had a winding journey in professional tennis and, at the Australian Open, she is hoping to add by far her most significant trophy yet. When she steps on court to face 2012-13 champion Victoria Azarenka, Pegula will be appearing in the quarterfinals for the third year in a row at Melbourne Park – and for the fifth time overall at a major, all in the past 24 months.

The No. 3 Pegula is the highest-seeded woman remaining, with No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 2 Ons Jabeur eliminated.

“I have a great shot here. … All around, throughout the whole tournament, I’ve been playing the best I have,” she said after beating 2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova 7-5, 6-2 in the fourth round.

Pegula relies on terrific returning (she’s won a tournament-high 64% of games served by opponents) and strong defense. She uses a flat forehand and backhand slice (she’s won 61% of points played at the baseline, second-best so far).

“She plays quite simple, which is, I would say, a compliment,” Azarenka said, likening that aspect of Pegula’s approach to former No. 1 Ash Barty, who “just did certain things so well, over and over and over again.”

Pegula is 0-4 so far in Slam quarterfinals, with losses to Jennifer Brady at the 2021 Australian Open, Barty at the 2022 Australian Open, and Swiatek at the 2022 French Open and 2022 U.S. Open.

“I guess, currently, seeding-wise, I’m the favorite,” Pegula said. “I would say it feels different.”

And it’s a long way from her trying times over the last decade. There was a 2013 knee problem that required surgery, but she worked her way back from that and earned a Grand Slam main-draw debut at the 2015 U.S. Open by beating 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinalist Melanie Oudin in the last round of qualifying.

Then came another health setback: A hip operation that kept Pegula out of action for more than half of 2017, dropping her ranking to No. 860 and sending her to lower-level ITF events.

Again, she regrouped and returned, claiming her first WTA title at Washington in 2019. That came shortly after beginning to work with Venus Williams’ former coach, David Witt, who has pointed to the way Pegula “started believing in herself more that she belongs up there.”

In Grand Slam action, Pegula went through a seven-match losing streak that ended with a third-round showing at the 2020 U.S. Open, and she delivered her initial major quarterfinal five months later in Australia.

More steps have followed – she called them “mini-breakthroughs” – including cracking the top 10 last year.

“I was like, `Wow, I broke through there,’ because I didn’t have a great Slam record. Then after that, it was … winning my first WTA event. That was a big one,” Pegula said. “So there’s all these little … milestones, I guess you could call them. I think it just kept building my confidence as I went along. I wouldn’t say there was like a huge turning point.”

Another could come this week: The Pegula-Azarenka winner will face whoever emerges from the quarterfinal between 2022 Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

The fourth-round matches on the bottom half of the draw were as follows: Aryna Sabalenka vs. Belinda Bencic, Donna Vekic vs. Linda Fruhvirtova, Caroline Garcia vs. Magda Linette, and Karolina Pliskova vs. Zhang Shuai.

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.