Nadal beats Kuznetsov to reach 3rd round at Madrid Masters

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MADRID (AP) Rafael Nadal defeated Andrey Kuznetsov 6-3, 6-3 on Tuesday to win his 11th consecutive match this year and advance to the third round of the Madrid Masters.

Nadal broke Kuznetsov’s serve once in the first set and twice in the second to secure the win in his opening match at the clay-court tournament that he has won twice in the last three seasons.

The Spaniard had four aces and no double faults against the 39th-ranked Russian, winning the match in 1 hour, 18 minutes.

Nadal will next face either American Sam Querrey or Frenchman Lucas Pouille, who play their match on Wednesday.

Nadal hasn’t lost since his opening match at the Miami Open in March. The former No. 1 is coming off consecutive titles at the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open.

Another win in Madrid this week would allow Nadal to match his total number of titles from last year, and boost his confidence even further heading into the French Open in three weeks. Nadal last won at Roland Garros in 2014.

After struggling last season, the fifth-ranked Spaniard is off to a good start in 2016 and has been playing at a high level again. He has reached at least the semifinals in six of the eight tournaments he has played this year, with the early eliminations coming at the Australian Open and in Miami.

“I’m happy with the way I started the clay-court season,” Nadal said. “Today, another victory, so that’s great news. I’m excited about this tournament.”

Nadal dominated on Tuesday by serving extremely well. He needed only eight second serves the entire match, and lost only five points on his first. He hit 22 winners and had only nine unforced errors at the “Magic Box” center court in Madrid.

“My serve has been solid,” Nadal said. “I served well both in Monte Carlo and in Barcelona. And it’s going to be vital to serve well here as well to have a good tournament.”

Nadal reached his 40th win at his home Masters. He has won the tournament four times, including in 2013 and 2014, but lost last year’s final to Andy Murray.

The second-ranked Murray will play Radek Stepanek later Tuesday. The 37-year-old Stepanek on Monday became the oldest player to win a match at a Masters 1000 tournament since Jimmy Connors in 1992.

Top-seeded Novak Djokovic debuts on Wednesday against either clay-court specialist Nicolas Almagro – a winner at the Estoril Open last weekend – or 19-year-old Croatian Borna Coric, the youngest player in the top 40. Coric is known as the “mini-Djokovic” for having a similar playing style as the top-ranked player.

Djokovic and Nadal each have 28 career Masters titles.

Third-ranked Roger Federer withdrew on Monday because of a back injury.

In other matches Tuesday, former No. 4 in the world Juan Martin del Potro – currently ranked 274th after a series on injuries – had an emotional 7-6 (5), 6-3 win over 14th-seeded Dominic Thiem.

Del Potro hit 10 aces to reach the second round against American Jack Sock, who rallied to defeat Benoit Paire of France 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (5) in nearly two hours.

“I have just played my best match since I came back to tennis after my surgeries,” Del Potro said. “I’ve had a great test against a very high-level player.”

Also, 13th-seeded Gael Monfils cruised past Kevin Anderson 6-4, 6-1, while 15th-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut beat qualifier Santiago Giraldo 6-3, 7-5.

In the women’s draw, sixth-seeded Simona Halep of Romania routed Karin Knapp of Itay 6-1, 6-1, while eighth-seeded Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro beat Sabine Lisicki of Germany 6-3, 6-2.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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

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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?”