Rafael Nadal knocked out of Australian Open in first round

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal lost in the first round of a major for only the second time in his career, beaten in five sets by Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open in a reversal of their epic, 5-hour, 14-minute semifinal here seven years ago.

On Tuesday, Fernando Verdasco rallied from a 2-1 deficit and recovered a break in the fifth set to claim a 7-6 (6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 win in 4 hours and 41 minutes, only his third victory in 17 matches against his fellow Spanish lefthander.

Nadal won his only Australian title in 2009 after beating Verdasco in the semifinals. The 14-time major winner’s only other first-round exit in a Grand Slam was at Wimbledon in 2013 when he lost in straight sets to No. 135-ranked Steve Darcis of Belgium.

“It’s a hard and painful loss,” the fifth-seeded Nadal said. “He was playing amazing in the last set … more aggressive than me. He took more risks than me, and he won. Probably he deserved.”

There were two upsets on the women’s side, with No. 2 Simona Halep and seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams losing in the first round.

Halep, the 2014 French Open finalist, lost 6-4, 6-3 to Zhang Shuai for her third first-round loss at Melbourne Park in the past five years, but giving the No. 133-ranked Chinese qualifier her first win at a Grand Slam after 14 losses and only months after she contemplating retirement.

“It’s OK. I don’t want to make this match like dramatic,” said Halep, who refused to blame an Achilles tendon problem that forced her out of a warmup event for her earlier loss. “It happened. Everyone can lose. I have just to take it like it is and go ahead.”

Verdasco went for everything on his ground strokes, ripping 90 winners against only 37 for Nadal as he worked to the extremes to unsettle his former No. 1-ranked rival.

“To win against Rafa here coming from two sets down is unbelievable,” the 32-year-old, No. 45-ranked Verdasco said. “I think I played unbelievable – the fifth set from the break that he made me, I just started hitting winners. I don’t know how, just, you know I was closing the eyes and everything was coming in and I keep doing it and I was doing well.”

Stan Wawrinka, who beat Nadal in the 2014 Australian final, and four-time runner-up Andy Murray advanced, along with Lleyton Hewitt, the two-time major winner who is playing his 20th and last Australian Open tournament before retiring.

French Open champion Wawrinka was leading 7-6 (2), 6-3 when his opponent Dmitry Tursonov retired with what appeared to be an upper leg injury.

After beating Halep, Zhang burst into tears when asked about breaking the drought.

“I think in my life, it’s the best tennis,” she said. “To win against a top-two player, I’m so happy, so excited.”

Williams lost 6-4, 6-2 to Johanna Konta, her eighth first-round loss at a major.

No. 3 Garbine Muguruza and No. 7 Angelique Kerber were among the women advancing to the second round.

The upset results took some focus off the match-fixing allegations that have overshadowed the first two days of the season’s first major.

No. 2-ranked Murray began his bid for a drought-breaking title at the Australian Open with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 win over Alexander Zverev, checked to see there were no urgent calls from home – his wife is expecting their first child next month – and had to answer questions immediately about the reports.

“I just think that it should be tennis that does a better job of explaining … (players) shouldn’t have to read it in the press,” Murray said. “You have to be proactive I think with things like this and go and speak to the players rather than them reading about it in the newspapers or listening to it on the TV or the radio.”

The BBC and Buzzfeed News published reports Monday alleging match-fixing had gone unchecked in tennis. The reports alleged 16 players, all ranked in the top 50 at some stage and half of them playing at the Australian Open, had repeatedly raised suspicion because of their results and had been flagged with tennis authorities, but had not been sanctioned. No players were identified.

The governing bodies for tennis rejected the claims, and highlighted the fact five players and an official had received life bans after investigations from the Tennis Integrity Unit which was set up in 2008.

Murray thought authorities could be doing more to combat the potential for corruption. Murray also said it was “a little bit hypocritical” for tournaments – including the Australian Open – to be sponsored by betting firms.

No. 13 Milos Raonic followed up his win over Roger Federer in the final of the Brisbane International tune-up event with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 win over Lucas Pouille.

Joining him the second round will be No. 8 David Ferrer, No. 10 John Isner and No. 18 Feliciano Lopez.

Djokovic to start 2023 in Adelaide ahead of Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic will open his 2023 campaign in Adelaide as he prepares for a shot at a 10th Australian Open crown a year after having his visa revoked on the eve of his title defense.

The 21-time major winner has been granted a visa by the Australian government and has been listed to play at the Adelaide International, which starts Jan. 1.

Serbia isn’t contesting the inaugural United Cup team competition, leaving Djokovic free to play regular warmup tournaments head of the Jan. 16-29 Australian Open.

He’ll be joined in the men’s draw at Adelaide by Russians Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada and Andy Murray.

Ons Jabeur, Aryna Sabalenka will headline the women’s draw.

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles last month confirmed Djokovic had been granted a visa to compete in Australia in January. The 35-year-old Serbian had been facing a possible three-year ban after being deported last January over his stance against COVID-19 vaccination.

Djokovic has won the Australian Open a record nine times, including the last three times he played. Rafael Nadal won this year’s title in Djokovic’s absence.

Djokovic was not vaccinated against COVID-19 when he arrived in Melbourne ahead of the 2022 tournament, but Australia has since lifted strict rules for unvaccinated travelers.

Karolina Pliskova reuniting with Sascha Bajin

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Two-time Grand Slam finalist Karolina Pliskova is reuniting with coach Sascha Bajin ahead of the 2023 season.

Pliskova posted on her website and her Twitter account about the move, which comes about six months after she and Bajin stopped working together. The pair originally teamed up in November 2020.

While Bajin was her coach, Pliskova reached the final at Wimbledon in 2021 before losing to champion Ash Barty. Pliskova also was the runner-up at the 2016 U.S. Open, where she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals before being beat by Angelique Kerber for the trophy.

After splitting from Bajin in July, Pliskova was coached by Leos Friedl. Their results together included a quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open.

Bajin has worked as a coach or hitting partner with several top tennis players, including Grand Slam title winners Williams, Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki.

“Thank you for having me back,” Bajin wrote on Twitter. “Let’s go get it.”

Pliskova is a 30-year-old from the Czech Republic who reached No. 1 in the WTA rankings in 2017 and finished this season at No. 31 after going 21-21 with no titles.

Her team also includes fitness specialist Jez Green and physiotherapist Martin Salvador.

Next year’s first Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open, begins Jan. 16.