Two-time champ Azarenka ousts Pegula to reach Australian Open semis

By HOWARD FENDRICH AP Tennis Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia — Victoria Azarenka displayed the same confident brand of hard-hitting baseline tennis that carried her to two Australian Open titles and the No. 1 ranking a decade ago, beating Jessica Pegula, 6-4, 6-1, on Tuesday night (overnight PT) to return to the semifinals at Melbourne Park.

Azarenka won the 2012 and 2013 championships in Australia, but she had not been back to the final four there since then.

Now 33 and a mother – she walked out into Rod Laver Arena wearing a jersey from her 7-year-old son’s favorite soccer team, Paris Saint-Germain – Azarenka, who is from Belarus, delivered big shot after big shot, raced to a 3-0 lead in 12 minutes, and never really let the third-seeded Pegula, a good friend, get into the match.

“Leo doesn’t really care so much that I’m playing here,” Azarenka said with a laugh. “He worries more about his football and when are we going to go play again. Obviously, he is watching some matches, but he definitely wants his mom to be home. So a few more days here, and I’ll be back.”

She might make the trip with a trophy in tow if she keeps playing like this.

Even when Pegula did grab a game, she needed to work so hard for it, erasing six break points before finally holding serve to get on the board. It was a far cry from the sort of success Pegula had earlier in the tournament: She entered Tuesday having dropped zero sets and 18 games across four previous matches.

The No. 24-seeded Azarenka’s semifinal opponent will be No. 22 Elena Rybakina, the reigning Wimbledon champion, who defeated 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, 6-2, 6-4, on Tuesday afternoon (Monday night PT). That match was delayed for about 20 minutes in the first set while the main stadium’s retractable roof was shut because of rain.

Rybakina hit 11 aces to take her tournament-leading total to 35.

“I got all the experience at Wimbledon, and it’s helping me now this time, here in Australia, and I know what to expect,” said Rybakina, who was born in Moscow but has represented Kazakhstan since 2018 because it offered to fund her tennis career. “For sure, it’s just easier in this case.”

A three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open, most recently in 2020, Azarenka has always played most effectively on hard courts, and that showed again on this evening. She repeatedly got the better of lengthy exchanges of forehands and backhands; Pegula made eight of the match’s first 10 unforced errors.

After some misses, Pegula would sigh, roll her eyes, slump her shoulders. She often looked into the stands at her coach, Davis Witt, to say something, including one exclamation about the ball speed of “It’s so … slow!”

“It hurts to beat her, because I always want her to do well. But also, at the same time, I know I have to play my best tennis. … I knew from the first point I have to bring it,” Azarenka said. “We had so many rallies, and I just wanted to try to stay there, take opportunities, because she was going to take everything if I don’t try to win it myself.”

Pegula, a 28-year-old from New York, was playing in the quarterfinals in Melbourne for the third year in a row but fell to 0-5 for her career at that stage in Grand Slam tournaments. Her parents own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, and Pegula wore a patch on her skirt during matches with the No. 3, the jersey number of player Damar Hamlin, who collapsed on the field during a game on Jan. 2.

Her exit leaves No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka as the lone top-20 woman still in the bracket. On Wednesday, Sabalenka will play unseeded Donna Vekic in the quarterfinals, while No. 30 Karolina Pliskova faces unseeded Magda Linette.

KHACHANOV ADVANCES WHEN KORDA STOPS

For a full set, Karen Khachanov’s Australian Open quarterfinal against Sebastian Korda was as tight as can be. Right up until, that is, Khachanov unleashed a down-the-line backhand to cap a 17-shot point and steal a tiebreaker.

Khachanov raised his right index finger to his ear, telling the Rod Laver Arena crowd to let him hear some support, then wagged that finger in a “No. 1!” gesture. Not long after that, early in the second set, Korda, a 22-year-old American whose father Petr was the 1998 champion in Australia, felt pain in his right wrist when he mis-hit a forehand service return. He called for a trainer to examine and tape it.

And early in the third, it was over, because Korda stopped playing while trailing, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-0, allowing Khachanov to reach his first semifinal at Melbourne Park – and his second consecutive trip to the final four at a Grand Slam tournament, following his run at the U.S. Open last September.

Soon, Khachanov was doing an on-court winner’s interview, telling the spectators to offer applause for his injured opponent, while Korda was walking toward the locker room, a red equipment bag over his left shoulder and a dour look on his face.

“I kind of reinvented myself, I would say. I always believed in myself, but there are always ups and downs,” said Khachanov, a 26-year-old Russian who is seeded No. 8 in Australia. “And sometimes when you have this great result, it just shows you what you are capable of and you start to believe more and more.”

Korda’s wrist first bothered him during a tune-up tournament in Adelaide earlier this month, but he said it seemed to be fine over the past two weeks until Tuesday (Monday PT).

“I kind of felt that spot that I was feeling before,” Korda said. “Some forehands, I couldn’t even hold the racket. Volleying was almost impossible for me. So it was a little tough.”

Khachanov will face either No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece or unseeded Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic for a berth in the men’s final. Tsitsipas and Lehecka were playing their quarterfinal Tuesday night (overnight PT).

Korda, who was seeded 29th, upset 2021 U.S. Open champion and two-time Australian Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev in the third round, then made it past No. 10 Hubert Hurkacz in five sets in the fourth round.

The younger Korda was one of three 20-something American men to get to the quarterfinals this time, the most for the country at the Australian Open since 2000. The other two, Ben Shelton and Tommy Paul, meet for a berth in the semifinals on Wednesday (Tuesday night PT).

None of the three ever had been to the final eight at a major tournament.

“There is a lot of positives. I mean, way more positives than even negatives. Today was tough, but hopefully it’s nothing serious and I can take care of it so I don’t have it in the future,” Korda said, referring to his wrist. “I’m going to go forward with my head high and keep working.”

DJOKOVIC PAIN-FREE, CONFIDENT

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 Monday (overnight PT) 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 fifth-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev, who will head into their matchup with an 0-6 record in Grand Slam quarterfinals. Rublev kept coming back, kept coming back, kept coming back – from down 5-2 in the fifth set, from facing a pair of match points while trailing 6-5, from deficits of 5-0 and 7-2 in the first-to-10 concluding tiebreaker – before finally putting away No. 9 Holger Rune, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (11-9).

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.

Of the 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.”

NEW TERRITORY FOR SHELTON, PAUL

Ben Shelton’s concerns leading into his first Australian Open had less to do with playing tennis and more to do with everything else associated with the trip.

His first time outside of the United States. His first time using a passport. The jet lag. The time difference. The food. The driving on the left side of the road. And, oh, yeah, the whole part about keeping up with online classwork as he begins a new semester this week while pursuing a business degree.

Shelton, you see, is still just 20. A year ago at this time, he was attending classes and competing in college tennis at the University of Florida, where his dad, a former pro himself, coaches the men’s team. As of Monday (Sunday night PT), when he edged J.J. Wolf, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-2, at John Cain Arena, Shelton became, suddenly and stunningly, a Grand Slam quarterfinalist – one of three American men to make it that far at Melbourne Park, the most for the country since 2000.

“Definitely a surprise. I got on the plane with no expectations,” Shelton, who won the 2022 NCAA singles championship, said of his performance at the second major tournament of his nascent professional career. “It maybe has helped me a little bit, kind of not having that expectation or the feeling that I have to perform, but being able to just go out there, be myself and play free. I think that’s been a big contribution to my success.”

Now the 89th-ranked Shelton meets yet another unseeded American, 35th-ranked Tommy Paul, who eliminated No. 24 seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.

Their matchup will be the first Slam quarterfinal between two men from the U.S. since 2007, when Andy Roddick beat Mardy Fish in Melbourne. Roddick’s title at the U.S. Open 20 years ago remains the last major singles championship for a man from the country.

“It’s like every person’s dream when they start playing tennis to play the big matches at the Slams,” said Paul, a 25-year-old from New Jersey. “I’m really excited to get out there on Wednesday. We know there’s going to be an American in the semis, so I’m really excited about that, too.”

Shelton and Wolf traded big cuts and momentum shifts on a day when the temperature rose above 80 degrees.

The left-handed Shelton comes equipped with a powerful serve that produced the fastest offering of the tournament so far, at 142 mph during his first-round victory, an instinct for defense and a competitive streak. Against Wolf, who played college tennis at Ohio State and also was playing in the main draw in Melbourne for the first time, Shelton only faced two break points and saved them both.

At times a bit quiet in the early going under the sun, Shelton grew more and more loud and animated as the shadows crept across the blue playing surface and the scoreline increased the intensity.

He would throw uppercuts and yell, “Come on!” or “Let’s go!” after winning points, and when the close contest came to a close, Shelton jutted out his tongue and flexed his arms.

“Each match that I’ve won here has felt the same. It’s a mixture of joy, relief. I just have that feeling of ecstasy, right? When the last ball lands: ‘I did it!’” Shelton said. “To be able to do that on this stage four times in a row, that feeling over and over again, has been pretty cool.”

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