No. 1 Djokovic into US Open semifinals for 9th year in row

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NEW YORK (AP) Novak Djokovic’s U.S. Open quarterfinal was suddenly tied at a set apiece, and he tore off his shirt as he headed to the sideline. He sat, halfheartedly tried to smash his racket, then began screaming.

Hardly the first time, nor likely to be the last, that Djokovic has let out a little emotion during a match. Whatever gets you through the day, right?

Gathering himself after getting pushed around a bit by an opponent with an unconventional style, Djokovic wound up reaching the semifinals at Flushing Meadows for the ninth consecutive year with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2) victory over 18th-seeded Feliciano Lopez that finished a little after 1 a.m. Wednesday.

“It was frustrating at times,” the No. 1-ranked Djokovic said, “but this is the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. This is what you expect.”

For all of his success getting to the closing days of the U.S. Open, though, Djokovic has one championship to show for it, in 2011. His other eight major titles came at either the Australian Open or Wimbledon.

Still, Djokovic is certainly consistent: He has now made it to the semifinals at 22 of the past 23 major tournaments.

“I hope I can keep on going,” the Serb said.

On Friday, he will take on defending champion Marin Cilic, who was unfazed by wasting a big lead or match points while holding on to beat 19th-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4 earlier Tuesday.

“A big mental fight,” the Croatian called it, “especially after losing that fourth set.”

Djokovic has never lost to Cilic, winning all 13 of their matches.

The two men’s quarterfinals on the other half of the men’s draw are Wednesday: No. 2 Roger Federer vs. No. 12 Richard Gasquet of France, and No. 5 Stan Wawrinka vs. No. 15 Kevin Anderson of South Africa.

Lopez’s loss dropped him to 0-4 in Grand Slam quarterfinals; this was his first time that far in New York.

He is a 33-year-old lefty who is that rare player these days who likes to use serve-and-volley tactics, doing so 41 times against Djokovic, winning the point 28 times. Djokovic, a brilliant baseliner, tried serve-and-volleying twice.

Lopez’s only break of the match came in the second set, and he made it count. Serving out that set, he saved a break point, then ended the game with an ace and pounded his chest. That’s when Djokovic was soon in his chair, bare-chested and bellowing.

Yet 40 minutes later, Djokovic was back in control, serving out the second set at love and capping it with a forehand winner.

Cilic appeared to be heading to a relatively straightforward win after taking the first two sets, considering he was 47-0 in his Grand Slam career when up by that margin. But Tsonga took the third set by finally converting his seventh break point of the match, and then serving it out from 15-30 by taking the last three points with a pair of service winners at 131 mph and 132 mph, followed by a 124 mph ace.

Tsonga, the 2008 Australian-Open runner-up, then saved three match points in the fourth set to force a fifth.

“Jo just came up with amazing shots,” Cilic said.

In the last set, Cilic broke at love to lead 3-2, and didn’t falter this time, although he did need another two match points to close it out, double-faulting on one, before finally winning when Tsonga sailed a forehand long.

“It’s a lot of frustration, of course, but that’s tennis,” Tsonga said.

Tsonga entered his quarterfinal against Cilic having held in all 56 of his service games in the tournament, a streak that reached 60 before Cilic broke to go up 5-4 in the first set. Cilic broke early in the second, too, and wound up winning three of Tsonga’s service games.

Tsonga helped out by double-faulting 11 times.

“I just served, I would say, very bad compared to the other days,” Tsonga said.

Cilic, meanwhile, hit 29 aces and saved nine of 10 break points.

Cilic wore a thick brace on his right ankle, which he tweaked during his fourth-round victory over another Frenchman, Jeremy Chardy. But it was Tsonga who appeared more troubled by an ailment, wearing a thick band of tape under his left knee.

“I don’t really want to talk about this, you know,” Tsonga said. “It’s part of the game, unfortunately, for me.”

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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?”