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Year after Slam bid at US Open, Williams eyes No. 23, No. 1

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Despite everything that Serena Williams has won and done, her sense of self can still fluctuate based on the outcome of a particular match.

Doesn’t always seem to matter that she owns a record-tying 22 major singles titles heading into the U.S. Open, which begins Monday with a retractable roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time.

Not necessarily a big deal to her that she’s spent the past 3+ years entrenched at No. 1 and is the oldest woman ever to top the WTA rankings.

And there are times when the 34-year-old American basically forgets that she transcends her sport and has become a cultural icon away from the tennis court.

Williams is devastated when she is dealt a setback, such as last year’s “Did that really happen?!” loss to Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals, ending an attention-grabbing, pressure-piling bid for the first calendar-year Grand Slam by anyone in more than a quarter-century. Williams acknowledges she measures herself constantly.

“Unfortunately, I definitely do, which I don’t think is normal. I definitely feel like when I lose, I don’t feel as good about myself,” she said.

“But then I have to, like, remind myself that: `You are Serena Williams!’ You know? Like, `Are you kidding me?”‘ Williams continued, laughing and leaning forward. “And it’s those moments that I have to just, like, come off and be like, `Serena, do you know what you’ve done? Who you are? What you continue to do, not only in tennis, (but also) off the court? Like, you’re awesome.’ That really just shows the human side of me. I’m not a robot.”

She is at the stage of her career where history is in the offing nearly every time a racket is in her right hand. So while the stakes are different from what they were at Flushing Meadows in 2015, Williams does have something significant to play for yet again.

After equaling Steffi Graf for the most Grand Slam titles in the professional era (which dates to 1968) by winning Wimbledon last month, Williams now can break that tie by earning No. 23 in New York. Only Margaret Court owns more major singles trophies, with 24, but more than half of that total came against amateur competition.

Not that Williams was immediately ready to think about topping Graf after pulling even with her at the All England Club.

“One thing I learned about last year is to enjoy the moment,” Williams said. “I’m definitely going to enjoy this.”

Good thing, too, because not everything has gone smoothly since that most recent triumph. Slowed by a bothersome right shoulder, Williams lost in the third round of singles and first round of doubles at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics – she was a 2012 gold medalist in both events – and then pulled out of a hard-court tuneup event in Ohio.

Williams is assured of remaining at No. 1 until the end of the U.S. Open, which will bring her current streak to 186 weeks in a row, tying another mark held by Graf. Depending on what happens in the tournament, Williams could be overtaken in the rankings by No. 2 Angelique Kerber (who beat Williams in the Australian Open final in January), No. 3 Garbine Muguruza (who beat Williams in the French Open final in June) or No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska.

“It’s definitely intriguing,” Roger Federer said about tracking the women vying for No. 1. “It’s nice to see this race.”

Federer, who won five of his men’s record 17 Grand Slam titles in New York, will be sitting out the U.S. Open for the first time since 1999 as he takes the rest of the season off to let his left knee heal. A year ago, Federer lost in the final at Flushing Meadows to Novak Djokovic. In Federer’s mind, the top-ranked Djokovic is the favorite this time, even though No. 2 Andy Murray’s summer has been “phenomenal.”

One reason: Federer thinks the installation of the new $150 million roof at the main arena will limit the wind even when it’s open, which will help Djokovic.

Not too long ago, Djokovic appeared to be close to unbeatable no matter the surface or conditions, and a buzz was building about whether he could chase a true Grand Slam. But he exited Wimbledon in the third round, then the Olympics in the first round, while Murray won both of those titles.

“Novak, obviously, the last two years, really, has played amazing tennis. His consistency – what I’ve done for, like, the last four months, he’s been doing for, like, the whole year,” Murray said. “So I need to try and keep that going, and the U.S. Open is always the next big goal.”

 

Unexpected QF: Chung ousts Djokovic; Sandgren upsets Thiem

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Six-time champion Novak Djokovic was stunned in straight sets by Hyeon Chung only hours after Tennys Sandgren upset No. 5 Dominic Thiem at the Australian Open.

The back-to-back upsets Monday have set up a very unexpected quarterfinal: Chung, the first Korean to reach the last eight at a Grand Slam, vs. 97th-ranked Sandgren, who had never won a match at a major or beaten a top 10 player until last week.

No. 58-ranked Chung relentlessly attacked Djokovic – who is playing his first tournament since Wimbledon last July because of an injured right elbow – in the 7-6 (4), 7-5, 7-6 (3) fourth-round win.

He ripped 47 winners, including a forehand on the slide and at full stretch that put him within two points of victory, in the almost 3 1/2-hour match.

Chung credited the usually athletic Djokovic, who needed a medical timeout in the second set for a massage on his sore elbow, for the inspiration for that unlikely shot.

“When I’m young, I’m just trying to copy Novak because he’s my idol,” Chung said. “I can’t believe this tonight. Dreams come true tonight.”

The 26-year-old Sandgren, who entered the season’s opening major ranked 97th, missed a match point in the fourth set but held on for a 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (7), 6-3 win over Thiem. It followed up his earlier victory over 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka.

“I don’t know if this is a dream or not – all you guys are here, so maybe it’s not,” he said in an on-court TV interview after his 3-hour, 54-minute fourth-round win. “I’m not in my underwear, so maybe it’s not a dream.”

Sandgren is only the second man in 20 years to reach the quarterfinals on his debut at Melbourne Park.

He converted half of his eight break-point chances, and fended off 10 of the 12 he faced against Thiem, and hit 63 winners against 38 unforced errors in the biggest win of his life.

“Trying to keep riding the wave,” said Sandgren, who was named after his great-grandfather and who comes from Tennessee.

Defending champion Roger Federer had no real difficulties in reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals for the 14th time, accounting for Marton Fucsovics 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-2.

The 19-time major winner had never played Fucsovics but had beaten his coach – Attila Savolt – here in the second round in 2002.

Federer will renew a lengthy rivalry next against Tomas Berdych, who returned to the quarterfinals for the seventh time at Melbourne Park with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 win over Fabio Fognini.

The win over Fucsovics was Federer’s first day match of the 2018 tournament, and he joked about needing sunglasses and a towel for the beach but said really the only change was to set the alarm for a different time.

Angelique Kerber, the only Grand Slam singles winner remaining in the women’s draw, was up earlier, and got a serious wakeup call.

For a while it appeared Kerber’s progression could unravel against No. 88 Hsieh Su-wei, a former top-ranked doubles player with a double-handed grip on both sides, until she regained momentum for a 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 win. That earned Kerber a quarterfinal spot against U.S. Open finalist Madison Keys.

With a mix of slice and chips, lobs and bunts, whippy half-volleys and wristy crosscourt ground strokes off both wings, Hsieh pushed Kerber to the extremes.

“Credit to her. She played an unbelievable match,” said Kerber, who won the Australian and U.S. Open titles in 2016 and is on a 13-match winning streak to start 2018. “I was feeling I was running everywhere.”

Keys returned to the quarterfinals here for the first time in three years with a 6-3, 6-2 win over No. 8-seeded Caroline Garcia, and is yet to drop a set so far.

Top-seeded Simona Halep, who had to rally from triple match point down to advance through the third round, beat Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-2.

Hsieh, contesting the fourth round in a major for the first time in a decade, certainly made the most of her time back in the spotlight.

The Taiwanese player took out one major winner – Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza – in the second round, and took the first set of Kerber.

“I like to play freestyle,” Hsieh, a two-time Grand Slam doubles titlist, explaining her unusual array of shots. “Like today I go on the court, if I don’t have a plan then I do whatever I can.”

Nadal, Dimitrov advance to Australian Open quarterfinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) After snuffing out local hopes for yet another Australian Open, Grigor Dimitrov huddled with Nick Kyrgios at the net and the pair exchanged encouraging words.

It was Kyrgios, having just lost 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (4) in the fourth round in a typically tempestuous performance, who left No. 3-ranked Dimitrov with this message: “Believe.”

Dimitrov has never won a major, coming closest here last year before losing a semifinal to Rafael Nadal in five sets, but is enhancing his credentials as a next generation champion.

Nadal secured his spot in a 10th Australian Open quarterfinal earlier Sunday on Rod Laver Arena, beating Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3 in 3 hours and 51 minutes.

The 16-time major winner draped an arm around his Argentine friend and patted him on top of the head. If he needed a fitness test in the first week in his comeback from an injured right knee, he got it.

“A great battle … he’s a good friend of mine,” Nadal said. “This is the first big match that I played in 2018. That’s confidence for myself … confidence I can resist for four hours on court at a good intensity.”

Nadal will next play 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, who collected his 100th Grand Slam match win with a 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (0), 7-6 (3) victory over No. 10 Pablo Carreno Busta.

“I had the 300th win of my career at the U.S. Open in 2014, so this is also beautiful one,” Cilic said of his latest major milestone. “I hope I’m going to continue and gather three more here.”

Nadal lost last year’s Australian Open final to Roger Federer, but went on to regain the No. 1 ranking and win the French and U.S. Open titles before bringing his season to a premature end because of an injured right knee.

Despite not playing any competitive matches in his Aussie Open preparation, Nadal advanced through three rounds without dropping a set.

That streak finished when Schwartzman took the second set, rebounding three times after dropping serve to break back and win the tiebreaker.

Nadal lifted to win the third, but Schwartzman didn’t relent.

The second game of the fourth set lasted almost 13 minutes, with Nadal finally holding after saving five break points.

He broke again in the next game to regain control.

“It was a good test for me. It was a lot of hours on court. Moments under pressure,” Nadal said.

Britain’s Kyle Edmund reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal with a 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-2, 6-3 afternoon win over Andreas Seppi and could relax and watch the night-time entertainment featuring Dimitrov and Kyrgios. They all played two weeks ago in Brisbane, where Edmund lost to Dimitrov, who lost to eventual champion Kyrgios.

Both Dimitrov and Kyrgios got tense at key times in the night match. Dimitrov was broken while serving for the match. Kyrgios was called for a foot fault, double-faulted on a set point and smashed an easy overhead into the net on a break point after dominating the rally. He had 36 aces, and some second serves recorded at faster than 202 kph (125 mph).

“Only a couple points in it, you know. It wasn’t like I got demolished out there,” said Kyrgios, who missed the chance to end the drought for local men that dates back to the 1976 Australian Open. “I had a lot of chances to win the match and I just came up short.”

He tipped his mate Dimitrov to go far.

“He hasn’t even found his best form yet and he’s still getting through all those matches, which is pretty frightening,” Kyrgios said. “Once he finds his feet and he has more confidence, he’s got a real chance at winning it.”

Dimitrov thanked him for the support, and said he’s growing more confident in his game.

Caroline Wozniacki continued to cash in on her second chance, reaching the quarterfinals here for the first time since 2012 with a 6-3, 6-0 win over Magdalena Rybarikova.

After saving match points and coming back from 5-1 down in the third set of her second-round win, No. 2-ranked Wozniacki said she was “playing with the house money” and had nothing to lose.

Wozniacki next plays Carla Suarez Navarro, who rallied from a set and 4-1 down to beat No. 32 Anett Kontaveit 4-6, 6-4, 8-6.

The other quarterfinal will feature the winners of two tune-up events. Brisbane International champion Elina Svitolina beat Denisa Allertova 6-3, 6-0 in a match that started just before midnight.

Fourth-seeded Svitolina next plays Hobart International winner Elise Mertens, who beat Petra Martic to reach the quarterfinals in her Australian Open debut.

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More AP coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/AustralianOpen