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Raonic beats Nadal, keeps Brisbane title defense on track

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BRISBANE, Australia — Rafael Nadal was up a set and had a break point against defending champion Milos Raonic when he sent a forehand just wide.

It was a mistake the 14-time Grand Slam champion wouldn’t recover from.

Raonic made the most of the reprieve, holding serve in that fifth game of the second set and then attacking Nadal’s serve in the eighth to swing the momentum his way in a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 quarterfinal win Friday at the Brisbane International.

The top-seeded Raonic broke Nadal’s serve again to start the third set, and calmly held on for only his second win in eight matches against the Spaniard.

Raonic served 23 aces and hit 50 winners to just 19 for Nadal, who could only convert one of his seven break-point opportunities.

As well as the big, deep service returns, Raonic also repeatedly went to the net, trusting his instincts and putting pressure on Nadal.

“Today the mentality behind the match was what sort of kept me around,” Raonic said. “Some moments things weren’t looking great. I wasn’t efficient coming forward. I was missing some shots I shouldn’t be. I was rushing.

“But at least I kept myself there, and I was able to always recuperate the next point. That’s what I have to be most proud of.”

Nadal, coming back from a layoff after an injured left wrist curtailed the end of his 2016 season, beat Raonic in an exhibition tournament last week. But Raonic played with more intensity in Brisbane, and Nadal said a couple of lapses were costly.

“Probably if I put that passing shot forehand cross, I had the break in the second set, big chance that we will be here one hour before with a victory,” Nadal said. “That passing shot was long, and that’s it. Then he had the break and match changes.”

Nadal said three wins at the exhibition tournament, two wins and a close result in Brisbane gave him confidence his progress was good ahead of the Australian Open, where he is desperate to make amends for a surprising first-round exit last year.

Still in contention to start back-to-back seasons with a Brisbane title, Raonic will play seventh-seeded Grigor Dimitrov – a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 winner over No. 4 Dominic Thiem – in the semifinals.

U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka and third-seeded Kei Nishikori will meet in the other semifinal match.

The second-seeded Wawrinka beat unseeded Kyle Edmund 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-4 to reach the semifinals in his first trip to the Brisbane tournament.

In the previous three years, Wawrinka won the title in Chennai in the first week of the season before heading to Australia for the season’s first major.

Wawrkina has a 4-3 lead over Nishikori in career head-to-heads, including the semifinals at the U.S. Open last year, but Nishikori won two of the three meetings in 2016.

Nishikori has now reached the semifinals four times in seven visits to the Brisbane International, needing just an hour for a 6-1, 6-1 quarterfinal win over Australian wild-card entry Jordan Thompson.

“I think I played one of the best matches so far, really dominating from the baseline and serving good today,” Nishikori said. “Everything was working well.”

U.S. Open finalist Karolina Pliskova will play Alize Cornet in the women’s final on Saturday.

Cornet was leading 4-1 when French Open champion Garbine Muguruza retired with a right thigh injury. Pliskova beat sixth-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-2, 6-4 in the other semifinal match.

“A little bit of luck never killed anybody,” said Cornet, who finished last year ranked No. 46 but now expects to be seeded at the Australian Open. “I’m just going to take it. I really enjoy the fact that I’m in the final. It’s a big day for me, yeah.”

Muguruza didn’t think the injury setback would trouble her at the Australian Open.

“It will not stop me,” Muguruza said. “Cornet was playing good. I couldn’t match her level today. I had some pains, and I thought it was smarter to take care of my body.”

New look: Murray, Kerber start Australian Open as top seeds

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) It’s new and exciting for Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber, entering a Grand Slam tournament with the No. 1 in front of their names.

Both reached the top of the rankings for the first time near the end of 2016, ending long reigns by Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.

And so they’ll open their Australian Open campaigns on Rod Laver Arena on day one – both against Ukrainians.

Murray, a five-time runner-up, opens his pursuit of a first Australian title against Illya Marchenko in the last day match on the main show court. Kerber opens the night session against Lesia Tsurenko. She’ll be followed on court by Roger Federer, who is returning from six months on the sidelines.

The `one-round-at-a-time’ cliche is well worn in tennis. For Kerber, though, it’s pertinent. Seeded seventh last year, the left-handed German had to save a match point in the first round against Misaki Doi. Spurred on by that, she went on to beat Serena Williams in the final and claim her first Grand Slam title. She added a second major at the U.S. Open and ascended to the No 1 ranking.

“I think this point where I was match point down, that was the important point for my career,” Kerber said Sunday, speaking of her first-round escape against Doi. “You never know (if) I lost the match, what would have happened.”

It gave her the freedom to play without pressure, and that made all the difference.

“When I’m looking back, I was feeling that I got a second chance to stay in the tournament,” she said. “I was playing since then without expectation … just enjoying everything.”

Kerber can hang on to the top ranking by reaching to the final here, but she’s already feeling there’s more to defend than her title.

“It’s a new challenge for me, for sure,” she said. But, “We are starting from zero here. I have to be ready from the first round again.

“I will try to not put too much expectation and pressure on myself. I mean, I will try to do it like last year – that was the way I had my success.”

Record-chasing, six-time champions Djokovic and Williams, seeded No. 2 and anchoring the bottom half of the men’s and women’s draws, won’t be in action until day two. Djokovic is aiming to be the first man to win seven Australian titles. Serena Williams is chasing an Open-era record 23rd major title.

Newly-engaged Williams hasn’t wanted to talk about the record, being a little bit superstitious. Williams is concentrating on her first-round match against Belinda Bencic, who was seeded 12th here last year and who beat her in Toronto in 2015.

While Serena has to wait, the Williams family will be represented on Rod Laver Arena on Monday by her older sister, Venus. The 13th-seeded Venus Williams will play against Kateryna Kozlova following fourth-seeded Simona Halep’s opener against Shelby Rogers.

French Open champion Garbine Muguruza starts play on Margaret Court Arena against Marina Erakovic, and U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka opens the night session on the second show court.

Fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori gets things underway against Andrey Kuznetsov on Hisense Arena, where Nick Kyrgios will make his return to the tour against Gastao Elias.

The 21-year-old Kyrgios finished 2016 under a ban in a season overshadowed by clashes with officials and fans and by the tanking at the Shanghai Masters which led to an eight-week suspension.

The ban was reduced to three weeks when Kyrgios agreed to consult a sports psychologist, allowing to warmup for the Australian Open at the Hopman Cup.

That’s where Federer made his return from six months out to give his injured left knee time to heal. The 17-time major winner didn’t play after Wimbledon and his ranking slid to No. 17 by this week. That resulted in him getting a tougher draw than usual at the tournament he has won four times, and where he has reached the semifinals in 12 of the last 13 years. If results go with rankings, he’ll play two qualifiers before a potential third-round match against No. 10 Tomas Berdych. Nishikori and Murray are also in his quarter.

Federer will open against another 35-year-old veteran, former No. 8-ranked Jurgen Melzer.

“That’s the part of the draw I care most about because of having not been playing,” Federer said.

Wild-card entry Destanee Aiava, a 16-year-old Melbourne high school student, is set to become the first player born in this millennium to play a main draw match at a Grand Slam when she meets German qualifier Mona Barthel on Show Court 2.

Andy Murray confident he can break Aussie drought

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 14:  Andy Murray of Scotland serves during a practice session ahead of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Andy Murray has become a father, gained the No. 1 ranking and received a knighthood since he left Melbourne Park 50 weeks ago after losing a fifth Australian Open final.

Stress weighed him down at the season-opening Grand Slam in 2016, to the point where he thought about quitting the tournament to head back to Britain to be with his heavily pregnant wife. But even that would have presented problems, considering his father-in-law was in a Melbourne hospital after collapsing with an illness while watching a match at the Australian Open.

Clearly, he’s in a better place this year as he seeks to end his Australian drought.

“I obviously feel pretty confident after the way that last season finished,” he said. “I do love it here. I love the conditions. I have played really well here over the years, and just haven’t managed to get over the final hurdle.

“But, yeah, I think I’m in a decent position, for sure, to do it. I think I have a chance to win here. I’m playing well. Practice has been good. I feel healthy. I’ll give it a good shot.”

Rumors circulated last year that Murray would go home before facing Djokovic, his Melbourne nemesis, in the final. As it was, he was on the first flight to Heathrow after losing in straight sets – his fourth Australian Open final defeat to Djokovic and fifth overall dating back to 2010. His wife, Kim Sears, gave birth to their first child, Sophia Olivia, the following week.

He confirmed Saturday, two days before he opens the 2017 tournament against Illya Marchenko of Ukraine, that he really had thought about leaving early.

“It was a tough tournament, obviously the situation with Kim and the baby coming was tough,” he said. “Then with what happened with Nigel during the event made it really kind of awkward because there was times … it was like `I want to home for the birth,’ but then I’m not just going to leave while my father-in-law is also in hospital.

“It was tough, and certainly not a position I would want to put myself in again, or my wife, or any of my family really.”

Murray had a stunning end to 2016 after reuniting with Ivan Lendl as coach in June, winning his second Wimbledon title, defending his Olympic gold medal, and adding titles in Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna and Paris to end Djokovic’s 122-week stint at No. 1.

He then clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking by winning the ATP Finals, beating the players seeded second, third, fourth and fifth.

He set a record for most time between gaining the No. 2 and No. 1 rankings – seven years, and 82 days. But he has set a lot of timely records for British tennis in the last three seasons and, in Queen Elizabeth II’s New Year’s honors list, he received a knighthood from the British monarch for reaching the pinnacle of the sport.

Roger Federer was asked if he could remember what it was like back in 2004 when he first became No. 1, and how he’d explain it to Murray.

“It definitely feels different because everybody comes up to you and says, `You’re the best,'” said Federer, who spent a record 302 weeks at No. 1. “You start walking around a bit differently. Just feel more confident overall in your shots.”

Murray said he hasn’t really felt a difference yet, but it has only been eight weeks. Considering how hard it was to achieve the top spot, he’s hoping it doesn’t take twice the energy to hang on to it.

“It is a mindset thing, because I think it could be quite easy that once you get to No. 1 that you think, `Well, actually, I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing,'” he said. “The reality is that things obviously keep moving on, the game will get better, I’ll obviously get older, the young guys will continue to improve, and also Novak and Roger and Stan (Wawrinka) and Rafa (Nadal) and all the guys at the top are still going to be wanting to get there.

“I need to continue to improve. I for sure need to keep working hard.”

One thing he doesn’t really want to change is how people refer to him now that formally he’s recognized as Sir Andy Murray, particularly the broadcasters.

“I’m more than happy just being Andy. That’s enough for me,” he said. “Yeah, if they call me Andy, I’d be happy with that.”