US Open returns to Sunday men’s final

AP
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NEW YORK (AP) For the first time since 2007, the U.S. Open men’s final could be played on a Sunday.

That is the traditional final day of a Grand Slam tennis tournament, including in New York – until five straight years of rain, followed by a two-year schedule change partly prompted by that wet weather, pushed the last match to Monday. Now, under the U.S. Tennis Association’s new TV contract with ESPN, the sport’s fourth major of the season will look like the first three.

Gone for good is “Super Saturday,” the old format pairing the men’s semis and women’s final. The men get their desired day off between the last two rounds, while the women’s semis are now in Thursday prime time.

“`Super Saturday’ was great, but the intensity of the game and the physicality of the game really made that inappropriate,” said Gordon Smith, the USTA’s executive director, adding it became clear in the last 5-7 years that it wasn’t viable for the top men to play hugely important five-set matches on back-to-back days.

“It wasn’t fair to the players and it wasn’t fair to the fans,” Smith said.

After rain postponed the men’s final to Monday from 2008-12, the USTA decided before the 2013 edition to plan for a 15-day tournament from the start – a temporary fix under CBS’s contract at the time to air the late rounds. That meant no “Super Saturday” and the day off for the men they had long been lobbying for.

“The problem was, before, it was `Super Saturday’ and Sunday, and I know it was very popular with the fans … but you could have 12 days of beautiful sunshine, and then one rain and everything would be all over the place,” said five-time U.S. Open champ Roger Federer said, who’s thrilled one day of rain will no longer be a problem next year once the roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium is completed.

When the USTA agreed to an 11-year contract with ESPN to broadcast the entire tournament, that allowed it to reshape the schedule from scratch. Along with their semis moving to Friday to ensure a day of rest before the final, the men now will complete the first round in two days instead of the previous three.

Under the old format, one of the top men wouldn’t get on court until Wednesday, and players didn’t like waiting that long to start – or the possibility of squeezing seven matches into 12 days.

“That was a big conversation we had with the U.S. Open for a few years,” Federer said of both changes. “It took a lot of meetings and convincing to be done, but I hope happy players are going to make a happy tournament, and in the process everybody’s going to be really, really pleased with the outcome.”

For ESPN, a “Super Saturday” wasn’t appealing because of all the college football its networks air then, said Scott Guglielmino, the senior vice president for programming. What was enticing for ESPN, which also broadcasts all of the Australian Open and Wimbledon: following the same schedule as the other major tournaments.

“From the tennis fan perspective, we’re trying to set up a situation where that type of format is something that becomes expected and something fans look forward to,” Guglielmino said.

Also attractive for ESPN were the Thursday night women’s semifinals – and Friday men’s semis that will start in the late afternoon and likely run into prime time. Smith said the USTA wasn’t concerned about going up against the NFL’s first regular-season game that Thursday, confident the large number of women in the tennis audience will choose to watch the Open.

“We think that is going to be a home run,” he said.

With no singles matches on the afternoon of the final Thursday, the USTA will offer free grounds admission during the doubles semifinals.

The tournament was previously split among CBS, ESPN and Tennis Channel. Under the new deal, the first two hours of the day sessions will not always be televised as they were in the past but will be available to stream through ESPN3. The number of courts with TV cameras and live streaming is increasing from seven to 11.

With its new long-term contract, ESPN is making big investments in marketing and technology. What money can’t buy is a once-in-a-generation story line, and the network is enjoying the good fortune of Serena Williams chasing the first Grand Slam since 1988. ESPN is so committed to promoting her pursuit that it has been running a category on the scroll at the bottom of all its sports broadcasts that simply reads: “Serena.”

As Jamie Reynolds, ESPN’s vice president for event production, said: “It’s just an extraordinary way for us to launch this.”

Australian Open director: Novak Djokovic’s hamstring had 3-cm tear

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said Novak Djokovic played at the Grand Slam event with a muscle tear of 3 centimeters – a little more than an inch – in his left hamstring along the way to winning the championship.

“He gets a bad rap, but at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone can question his athleticism. This guy, I did see, he had a 3-centimeter tear in his hammy,” Tiley said in an interview.

“The doctors are … going to tell you the truth,” Tiley said. “I think there was a lot of speculation of whether it was true or not. It’s hard to believe that someone can do what they do with those types of injuries. But he’s remarkable.”

Djokovic won the trophy at Melbourne Park by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets for a record-extending 10th title there and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam trophy overall. Rafael Nadal is the only other man who has won that many majors.

The triumph also allowed Djokovic to return to No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

The 35-year-old from Serbia hurt his hamstring during a tune-up tournament in Adelaide ahead of the Australian Open. He wore a heavy bandage on his left thigh and was visited by trainers during matches in Week 1 in Melbourne.

He said he took “a lot” of painkiller pills and did various treatments to help the leg.

“Let me put it like this: I don’t say 100%, but 97% of the players, when you get results of the MRI, you go straight to the referee’s office and pull out of the tournament,” Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said after the final. “But not him. … His brain is working different.”

Aryna Sabalenka wins 1st Grand Slam title at Australian Open

2023 Australian Open - Day 13
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MELBOURNE, Australia – One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself – and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.’ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

“I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions,” she said, “and win this one.”

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy – she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check – she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now – is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph (195 kph), Sabalenka’s at 119 mph (192 kph).

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”