Nadal knocked out at Cincinnati, Steve Johnson moves up

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MASON, Ohio — Right from the start, Rafael Nadal was running on empty.

Nadal showed the effects of his long layoff from a wrist injury Thursday, losing to Croatia’s Borna Coric 6-1, 6-3 at the Western & Southern Open. The 30-year-old Spaniard has a lot of work to do before the U.S. Open.

He was sluggish and well off the mark on his shots Thursday and had a trainer visit between games to check his shoulder and elbow, which were feeling the effects of a lot of tennis at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and two days in Cincinnati’s heat and humidity.

“Too tired,” he said. “Elbow, shoulder. Two and a half months without competing and especially without practicing, and to do what I did in the Olympics and come here – too much.”

The 19-year-old Coric reached the quarterfinals of a Masters tournament for the first time and ended his streak of 10 straight losses against Top 10 opponents.

The upset left only one member of the Big Four still in the running.

Defending champion Roger Federer and top-ranked Novak Djokovic are missing the tournament because of injuries. Andy Murray is playing, but feeling the effects of a grueling week in Rio de Janeiro where he won the gold medal Sunday. Along with Nadal, those four have combined to win 54 of the last 58 Masters events.

Nadal missed two months because of an injured left wrist and returned to the courts in Rio, where he lost in the semifinals and won the doubles title. The lack of matches showed in Cincinnati: Nadal double faulted five times and had 27 unforced errors. Coric surged ahead 4-0 in the second set and closed it out in an hour and 11 minutes.

Steve Johnson also advanced to the quarterfinals on Thursday and put himself in position to become the top American in the ATP rankings heading into the U.S. Open.

Johnson beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 7-6 (6) and raised his index finger in celebration. He’ll move into the ATP’s top spot next week, knocking John Isner out of the slot that he’s held every week since July 29, 2013. Isner lost in the second round in Cincinnati.

“Hasn’t sunk in yet,” Johnson said. “I just found out. So it’s an honor, it really is. John has held that spot for a while, and I’m just glad that there are a bunch of Americans pushing toward the top.”

Second-seeded Stan Wawrinka wasted a chance to take advantage of the wide-open draw on Thursday, losing to Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 6-4. Wawrinka smacked his racket on the ground as he fell behind in the first set, the start of a frustrating match overall. Tied 3-3 in the second set, Wawrinka committed two unforced forehand errors and Dimitrov got the break he needed to take control.

Wawrinka had one of those few Masters titles that wasn’t claimed by the Big Four, winning in Monte Carlo in 2014.

In the women’s bracket, Karolina Pliskova became the first woman to reach the quarterfinals, defeating Misaki Doi 7-5, 6-3. Doi was a “lucky loser” who replaced defending champion Serena Williams when she withdrew with an inflamed shoulder on Monday.

Second-seeded Angelique Kerber moved into the quarterfinals with a 7-6 (3), 6-4 win over Barbora Strycova. She’ll end Williams’ streak of 183 consecutive weeks at No. 1 if she wins the tournament.

AP freelance writer Mark Schmetzer contributed to this report.

US Open ‘very hopeful’ unvaccinated Novak Djokovic can play

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After Novak Djokovic withdrew from tournaments in Florida and California because he still can’t travel to the United States as a foreign citizen who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, a U.S. Tennis Association spokesman said Saturday the group is “very hopeful” the top-ranked player will be allowed into the country for the U.S. Open in August.

“Policies concerning access to the United States are determined by the White House. We are very hopeful that the policy preventing Novak Djokovic from entering the United States will be rescinded, or lapse, in the near future,” the USTA’s Chris Widmaier wrote to The Associated Press. “No COVID-19 restrictions are in place at the U.S. Open for any player, fan or other attendee. Novak, one of our sport’s great champions, would be welcome to compete at the 2023 U.S. Open.”

The two-week U.S. Open starts in Flushing Meadows on Aug. 28.

Djokovic, a 35-year-old from Serbia, was unable to get to New York for the season’s last Grand Slam tournament in 2022, when he also missed the Miami Open and BNP Paribas Open because he never got the shots for the illness caused by the coronavirus.

A six-time Miami Open champion, Djokovic is out of the field for the event that begins next week, a spokesman for the Miami Open said Saturday.

Djokovic is No. 1 in the ATP rankings and is tied with Rafael Nadal – who is injured and also won’t be in Miami – at 22 Grand Slam titles, the record for most won by a man. In 2023, Djokovic is 15-1 with two titles, including at the Australian Open in January.

But he will now have missed the first two Masters 1000 events of the season. He also pulled out of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, which ends this weekend.

Back in in April 2020, as the pandemic raged, Djokovic said he was opposed to needing to be vaccinated to travel. He later said he would not get inoculated even if it meant missing tournaments.

In January 2022, he tried to get an exemption to compete at the Australian Open and traveled to Melbourne. But after his case went to court, his visa was revoked and Djokovic was deported from the country.

Pandemic restrictions have been eased in Australia since, and Djokovic returned this year without a problem and won the season’s first major championship.

Meanwhile, Nadal has been sidelined since hurting his left hip flexor during a second-round loss at Melbourne Park. He is aiming to return to action at the Monte Carlo Masters next month.

Alcaraz wins Indian Wells over Medvedev, regains No. 1 rank

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Carlos Alcaraz defeated Daniil Medvedev 6-3, 6-2 on Sunday to win the BNP Paribas Open title and regain the world’s No. 1 ranking.

The 19-year-old Spaniard will move from second to first in the ATP Tour rankings on Monday, displacing Novak Djokovic. The Serb withdrew from Indian Wells before the tournament began when he couldn’t gain entry to the U.S. because he’s unvaccinated for COVID-19.

“For me, it’s a dream come true again,” Alcaraz said. “Obviously being in front of such great players like Novak, it’s an amazing feeling.”

“I would say this has been the perfect tournament,” he said.

In the women’s final, Elena Rybakina beat Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (11), 6-4 and handed the world’s second-ranked player just her second loss this year.

Last year, Alcaraz became the youngest man to reach No. 1 in ATP history after his title at the U.S. Open.

He achieved another mark in the third round at Indian Wells. That’s when Alcaraz notched his 100th career match victory, the second-quickest player behind John McEnroe to do so.

Alcaraz also became the first man to win the tournament without dropping a set since Roger Federer in 2017 and the youngest man to win the title in the desert.

“I really trust in every shot that I hit,” he said. “If I miss, I don’t mind.”

Alcaraz hit 19 winners and had 10 unforced errors while keeping Medvedev off-balance with a steady array of serve-and-volley and drop shots. The teenager never faced a break point while opening leads of 3-0 in the first set and 4-0 in the second.

“What I improve a lot is to don’t take the pressure, just to play relaxed,” Alcaraz said. “That’s why I show a great level, because I feel like I have no pressure. I enjoy. I’m playing relaxed.”

Medvedev’s 19-match winning streak ended. It went back to his title run in Rotterdam in February. He then won tournaments in Doha and Dubai.

“I want to congratulate you for the work you have done in the last few months,” Alcaraz told his opponent. “Winning three titles in a row and reaching the finals here is an amazing achievement.”

Alcaraz and Rybakina earned $1,262,220 each for their wins.

Rybakina carried the momentum from her straight-set semifinal upset of top-ranked Iga Swiatek into the final and beat Sabalenka for the first time in five career meetings.

For the first time in their budding rivalry, the match didn’t go three sets. Sabalenka went the distance to beat Rybakina in the Australian Open final in January. In that match, Sabalenka fired 17 aces and rallied from a set down to win her first Grand Slam title.

This time, the 10th-seeded Rybakina had seven aces and No. 2 seed Sabalenka committed 10 double faults. Sabalenka won just 11 of 35 second-serve points.

“I would say that I was super disappointed with my serve, so I was back to old habits,” she said. “I was like a little bit overreacting on things, and I wasn’t there in the first two games in the second set.”

Rybakina broke for leads of 2-0 and 5-2 in the second set before Sabalenka closed to 5-4. But Rybakina served out the victory in just over two hours.

“This tiebreak was really epic, I would say, with all these double faults and nerves,” Rybakina said. “In the end, it was just focusing on every point and try to fight till the end.”

Rybakina improved her match record to 16-4 this year; Sabalenka fell to 17-2.

“This tough loss will motivate me more because I don’t like to lose in the finals,” Sabalenka said. “This is the worst.”

During the victory ceremony, Rybakina, the current Wimbledon champion, told the crowd it was the first time she’d beaten Sabalenka.

Sabalenka stepped forward, took the mic and said, “I will make sure it was the last one.”

Then she smiled.