With Novak Djokovic’s leg OK, he sees Australian Open title as realistic

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MELBOURNE, Australia — It took about a week for Novak Djokovic to go from worrying about whether he simply could play a match at all on his injured left hamstring to thinking he can win the Australian Open.

And one pain-free, nearly perfect performance in the fourth round made a world of difference.

“Tonight, the way I played, the way I felt, gives me reason now to believe that I can go all the way,” Djokovic said after completely overwhelming 22nd-seeded Alex de Minaur 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 to reach the quarterfinals for the 13th time at Melbourne Park and 54th time at all Grand Slam tournaments.

“I mean, I always believe I can go all the way, in terms of my tennis,” continued Djokovic, whose 21 major championships include nine in Australia. “But the way my leg felt before tonight wasn’t giving me too many hopes, so to say, for the entire tournament, to go all the way through. Tonight I feel that, so I feel positive about it.”

A year ago, he got kicked out of the country before the Australian Open because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. He still hasn’t gotten the shots, but the government’s coronavirus rules have been relaxed.

After looking out of joint occasionally in his first three matches in the tournament last week, sometimes stumbling to the ground, sometimes seeking treatment from a trainer, the 35-year-old from Serbia looked like his usual flexible, court-covering, dominant self at Rod Laver Arena against de Minaur.

Djokovic won 42 of 64 points that lasted five shots or more. He accumulated a 26-9 edge in winners. He won all 12 of his service games, never facing a single break point. Generally considered the best returner in the game now – and, perhaps, ever – Djokovic earned a dozen break chances and converted half.

He broke to lead 4-2 in the first set and again to end it. He broke to go up 2-0 and 4-0 in the second. He broke for advantages of 1-0 and 3-0 in the third.

“It just felt like constant pressure today. Every service game I had, wasn’t getting free points. It felt like an uphill battle from the start,” de Minaur said. “Never really was able to get my teeth into the match, make it tough for him, or bring the pressure moments and situations.”

Djokovic said he felt “fantastic” and “really great in terms of mobility and movement.”

In addition to taking “a lot” of anti-inflammatory pills to help the hamstring, Djokovic said he has been using “different treatments and machines and stuff” to help improve his leg. He also cautioned that he does not “want to celebrate too early, ’cause I don’t know how the body’s going to respond tomorrow and for the next match.”

Yes, there are still contests to come and players to contend with.

His upcoming opponent is No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev, who will head into their matchup Wednesday with an 0-6 record in Grand Slam quarterfinals. That day’s other men’s match will be between two unseeded Americans in their 20s who’ve never been this far at a major tournament: Ben Shelton and Tommy Paul.

The men’s quarterfinals scheduled for Tuesday: No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas against unseeded Jiri Lehecka, and No. 18 Karen Khachanov vs. No. 29 Sebastian Korda.

Of the seven remaining men other than Djokovic, none has won a Grand Slam title and only Tsitsipas ever has even reached a major final, and that was just once, losing to – yep, you guessed it – Djokovic at the French Open in 2021.

“I’ve been in this situation so many times before,” Djokovic said, leaning back in his chair and placing both palms on his chest. “From that point of view I think it helps me have kind of a more, let’s say, clear approach to the remaining days of the tournament and what I need to do. Of course, I’ll keep an eye on all the other matches, see how the other guys are doing. We’ll see what happens.”

De Minaur, for one, knows what he thinks is going to happen.

“What I experienced today was probably Novak very close to his best, I would say,” he said. “To me, if that’s the level, I think he’s definitely the guy that’s going to take the title.”

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.