Turning 29, Djokovic still chasing elusive French Open

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PARIS — Novak Djokovic will be celebrating his 29th birthday when the French Open starts on Sunday. If nothing else, it underlines just how frustrating it has become for the top-ranked Serb to win the only major to elude him.

Djokovic, who has lost the past two finals here and three altogether, is playing his 12th tournament and would set a record for most appearances at Roland Garros before winning the title in the Open era. Four players – Stan Wawrinka last year, Roger Federer in 2009, Andre Agassi in 1999 and Andres Gomez in 1990 – all won on their 11th appearance. Goran Ivanisevic holds the Open era Grand Slam record of needing 14 attempts before winning Wimbledon in 2001.

Although Djokovic insists he is not “obsessed” with winning the elusive title, he may never get a better chance, because nine-time champion Rafael Nadal is still finding his best form on clay, Wawrinka has been erratic and the 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer is skipping the tournament to protect his troublesome back. Second-second Andy Murray could pose a serious threat, having beaten Djokovic in the Italian Open final last weekend.

“Of course I anticipate myself, as everybody else (does), to try to get my hands on this title this year,” Djokovic said. “Even if my career was done tomorrow, I made some achievements that I must be proud of. So that’s how I approach things. I don’t try to approach them from a point of view of being obsessed with this tournament or with any other tournament, for that matter.”

Federer has always been a huge fan’s favorite, wherever he plays, and the hard-to-please Parisian fans have warmly taken Nadal to their hearts since he won for the first time here as a scraggly-haired teenager in 2005.

Perhaps seeking that extra bit of energy to take him all the way, Djokovic clearly wants to get the French fans on his side.

This was evident on Saturday when, before starting his practice, he goofed around wearing a beret as he played the traditional French game called “petanque” – albeit with yellow tennis balls instead of those heavy metallic ones – and jokingly played around with a violin.

Or perhaps Djokovic is just trying to reduce the pressure and expectations. It’s not hard to see why because, since the start of 2015, he’s 119-9 overall, winning four majors and 16 titles – including a tour-leading five this year.

He has won 11 majors and could yet equal Nadal’s haul of 14 by the end of the year.

When Djokovic lost the 2014 French Open final to Nadal, the Spaniard was still the player to beat on clay.

That’s now changed. Despite Nadal winning the Monte Carlo Masters for a ninth time in April and following up with a ninth success at Barcelona to equal Guillermo Vilas’ record of 49 career clay-court titles, he is in Djokovic’s shadow, even on clay.

Djokovic has beaten him seven consecutive times since that 2014 final – crushing him in three sets in the quarterfinals here last year and beating him twice more on clay, most recently in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open.

Enticingly, they could meet in the semifinals this year, which would be their 50th meeting and on Nadal’s 30th birthday – not that Nadal needs any extra motivation.

Djokovic leads him 26-23 in head-to-heads and this is his equal-best winning streak against Nadal, having previously beaten him seven consecutive times – all of them in finals: six in 2011 and then the 2012 Australian Open.

Nadal’s first-round opponent will be big-serving Sam Groth, an Australian ranked 95th.

“He’s a difficult one,” said Nadal, who has never played Groth. “I know he’s going to be difficult to have breaks against.”

Djokovic faces 100th-ranked Lu Yen-hsun while Murray opens against veteran Radek Stepanek, and Wawrinka has a tricky first match against hard-hitting Czech Lukas Rosol.

Defending champion Serena Williams is bidding for her fourth Roland Garros title and needs one more major to equal Steffi Graf’s record for the Open era, and three more to match Margaret Smith Court’s all-time mark of 24 majors.

The 34-year-old American, who will open against 76th-ranked Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia, has never won back-to-back French Open titles.

Sunday’s first-round men’s play features fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan, No. 8 Milos Raonic of Canada and big-hitting Australian Nick Kyrgios, while on the women’s side, No. 5 Simona Halep of Romania, 11th-seeded Czech Lucie Safarova – last year’s runner-up – and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova are playing. Also, No. 15 John Isner and No. 19 Sloane Stephens are among nine Americans in action.

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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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.”