Serena-Sharapova rivalry comes again to Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Serena Williams says she doesn’t remember much about the first time she played Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open.

It was 11 years ago, after all, way back in 2005. But she does remember the outcome.

“I was down a match point. I remember hitting it as hard as I could,” recalled Williams, who ultimately saved three match points in that semifinal. “I remember, obviously, winning and that was really great.”

Sharapova remembers it, too. Mainly because her 17-match losing streak against Williams started that day.

Both players advanced Sunday to the Australian Open quarterfinals where they will meet in a high-profile rematch of last year’s final and the latest installment in their long running rivalry.

“I look forward to playing the best in the world, and that’s what she’s proven in the last year – the last many years,” Sharapova said about Williams after beating Belinda Bencic 7-5, 7-5 in the fourth-round Sunday.

Williams’ dominance of the women’s game has created a gulf that is enormous between her spot at No. 1 and everyone else.

She has won 21 Grand Slam titles, including last year’s Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. She’s won the Australian title a record six times in the Open era.

She came agonizingly close to winning all four majors last year, which would have made her the first person to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam in 27 years.

But losing, Williams said Sunday, just makes her want to win more.

“For my whole career, I have been motivated by losses,” Williams said after beating Margarita Gasparyan 6-2, 6-1, in just 55 minutes. “That’s just been my thing. When I lose, I just get better.”

Williams has powered through the first week at the Australian Open without dropping a set. Asked if her record against Sharapova gives her extra confidence, she said it doesn’t matter to her who she plays.

“I just feel like I’m really confident in my game right now, not against her or against any other opponent” in particular, William said. “I’m just really looking at me right now, and I feel like if I can just continue to play well, then it could be good.”

Put another way, when Williams is at the top of her game it is incredibly hard to beat her.

At 34, she is the oldest woman to hold the No. 1 ranking – but age does not appear to matter. Every tournament she plays in, it seems, holds another chance for Williams to make history.

With another championship in Melbourne, Williams would equal Steffi Graf’s 22 major singles titles.

Margaret Court, the Australian great who won 24 Grand Slam singles titles and has a stadium named in her honor at Melbourne Park, was in the crowd watching Williams – and waved to her after the match.

“Obviously 24 is close, but, yet it’s so far away,” Williams said, adding that it was an honor to play in front of Court and she wasn’t consciously trying to overtake her. “Honestly, I just focus on each game at a time. I never play thinking I want to be with the great Margaret Court. I just play just want to win a Grand Slam and that’s it.”

Before her match, Williams was keeping an eye on Sharapova’s match and noted that she “had a really good win today.”

Sharapova hit a career-high 21 aces and hit 58 winners, converting her second match point when she challenged a line call after her forehand was initially called long.

The five-time Grand Slam winner last won the Australian Open in 2008 and has been a finalist four times.

When her rivalry with Williams started out, she had the lead. Sharapova won consecutive matches against Williams in 2004, at Wimbledon and the season-ending championships, but hasn’t won since.

It’s a statistic she tries to block from her mind, particularly right before they play.

“It’s not like I think about, `What can I do worse?”‘ Sharapova said. “I got myself into the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam. There is no reason I shouldn’t be looking to improve and to getting my game in a better position than any previous round. It’s only going to be tougher, especially against Serena.”

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

LONDON – Former top-10 player Fernando Verdasco accepted a voluntary provisional doping suspension of two months after testing positive for a medication for ADHD, the International Tennis Integrity Agency announced.

Verdasco, who turned 39 this month, said he was taking methylphenidate as medication prescribed by his doctor to treat ADHD but forgot to renew his therapeutic use exemption for the drug. The integrity agency said Verdasco has now been granted an exemption by the World Anti-Doping Agency moving forward.

He tested positive at an ATP Challenger tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in February.

The integrity agency said in a news release that it “accepts that the player did not intend to cheat, that his violation was inadvertent and unintentional, and that he bears no significant fault or negligence for it,” and so what could have been a two-year suspension was reduced to two months.

Verdasco will be eligible to compete on Jan. 8.

The Spaniard is a four-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, reaching that stage most recently in 2013 at Wimbledon, where he blew a two-set lead in a five-set loss to eventual champion Andy Murray.

Verdasco reached a career-best ranking of No. 7 in April 2009 and currently is No. 125.

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports
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MALAGA, Spain — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him.

A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup.

“I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Canada won the title for the first time, beating Australia behind victories from Denis Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime secured the winning point when he downed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4 after Shapovalov opened the day by rolling past Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.

Seven years after leading Canada to the top of junior tennis, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and their teammates finally got to lift the biggest team trophy in their sport.

“We wanted to grow up and be part of the team and try to help the country win the first title,” Shapovalov said, “so everything is just so surreal right now.”

Shapovalov had dropped both his singles matches this week and needed treatment on his back during a three-set loss in the semifinals to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy that lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. But the left-hander moved quickly around the court, setting up angles to put away winners while racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set.

Auger-Aliassime then finished off his superb second half of the season by completing a perfect week in Spain. He twice had kept the Canadians alive after Shapovalov dropped the opening singles match, and he replaced his weary teammate to join Vasek Pospisil for the decisive doubles point.

This time, Auger-Aliassime made sure the doubles match wouldn’t even be necessary. After his teammates poured onto the court to celebrate with him, they got up and danced around in a circle.

Canada had reached the final only once, falling to host Spain in Madrid in 2019, when Rafael Nadal beat Shapovalov for the clinching point after Auger-Aliassime had lost in the opening match.

But with Auger-Aliassime having since surged up the rankings to his current spot at No. 6, the Canadians are a much more formidable team now. They won the ATP Cup in January and finally added the Davis Cup crown to the junior Davis Cup title Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led them to in 2015.

Australia was trying for its 29th title and first since current captain Lleyton Hewitt was part of the title-winning team in 2003.

But it was finally time for the Canadians, who were given a wild card into the field when Russia was suspended because of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Look, I think we were very close today,” de Minaur said. “Just wait until the next time we get the same matchup. Hopefully we can get the win and prove that we can do it.”

But Canada will be tough to beat as long as Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov play.

Shapovalov is just 23 and Auger-Aliassime 22, but both already have been Grand Slam semifinalists and Auger-Aliassime ended 2022 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour. He won all of his four titles this year, including three straight weeks in October.

He also beat Carlos Alcaraz in the previous Davis Cup stage in September, just after the Spaniard had won the U.S. Open to rise to No. 1 in the rankings. That victory helped send the Canadians into the quarterfinals, which they started this week by edging Germany.

“They’re not kids anymore, that’s for sure. Not after today – well not after the last couple of years,” said Pospisil, the team veteran at 32. “They’ve been crushing it.”