Year after Slam bid at US Open, Williams eyes No. 23, No. 1

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Despite everything that Serena Williams has won and done, her sense of self can still fluctuate based on the outcome of a particular match.

Doesn’t always seem to matter that she owns a record-tying 22 major singles titles heading into the U.S. Open, which begins Monday with a retractable roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time.

Not necessarily a big deal to her that she’s spent the past 3+ years entrenched at No. 1 and is the oldest woman ever to top the WTA rankings.

And there are times when the 34-year-old American basically forgets that she transcends her sport and has become a cultural icon away from the tennis court.

Williams is devastated when she is dealt a setback, such as last year’s “Did that really happen?!” loss to Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals, ending an attention-grabbing, pressure-piling bid for the first calendar-year Grand Slam by anyone in more than a quarter-century. Williams acknowledges she measures herself constantly.

“Unfortunately, I definitely do, which I don’t think is normal. I definitely feel like when I lose, I don’t feel as good about myself,” she said.

“But then I have to, like, remind myself that: `You are Serena Williams!’ You know? Like, `Are you kidding me?”‘ Williams continued, laughing and leaning forward. “And it’s those moments that I have to just, like, come off and be like, `Serena, do you know what you’ve done? Who you are? What you continue to do, not only in tennis, (but also) off the court? Like, you’re awesome.’ That really just shows the human side of me. I’m not a robot.”

She is at the stage of her career where history is in the offing nearly every time a racket is in her right hand. So while the stakes are different from what they were at Flushing Meadows in 2015, Williams does have something significant to play for yet again.

After equaling Steffi Graf for the most Grand Slam titles in the professional era (which dates to 1968) by winning Wimbledon last month, Williams now can break that tie by earning No. 23 in New York. Only Margaret Court owns more major singles trophies, with 24, but more than half of that total came against amateur competition.

Not that Williams was immediately ready to think about topping Graf after pulling even with her at the All England Club.

“One thing I learned about last year is to enjoy the moment,” Williams said. “I’m definitely going to enjoy this.”

Good thing, too, because not everything has gone smoothly since that most recent triumph. Slowed by a bothersome right shoulder, Williams lost in the third round of singles and first round of doubles at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics – she was a 2012 gold medalist in both events – and then pulled out of a hard-court tuneup event in Ohio.

Williams is assured of remaining at No. 1 until the end of the U.S. Open, which will bring her current streak to 186 weeks in a row, tying another mark held by Graf. Depending on what happens in the tournament, Williams could be overtaken in the rankings by No. 2 Angelique Kerber (who beat Williams in the Australian Open final in January), No. 3 Garbine Muguruza (who beat Williams in the French Open final in June) or No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska.

“It’s definitely intriguing,” Roger Federer said about tracking the women vying for No. 1. “It’s nice to see this race.”

Federer, who won five of his men’s record 17 Grand Slam titles in New York, will be sitting out the U.S. Open for the first time since 1999 as he takes the rest of the season off to let his left knee heal. A year ago, Federer lost in the final at Flushing Meadows to Novak Djokovic. In Federer’s mind, the top-ranked Djokovic is the favorite this time, even though No. 2 Andy Murray’s summer has been “phenomenal.”

One reason: Federer thinks the installation of the new $150 million roof at the main arena will limit the wind even when it’s open, which will help Djokovic.

Not too long ago, Djokovic appeared to be close to unbeatable no matter the surface or conditions, and a buzz was building about whether he could chase a true Grand Slam. But he exited Wimbledon in the third round, then the Olympics in the first round, while Murray won both of those titles.

“Novak, obviously, the last two years, really, has played amazing tennis. His consistency – what I’ve done for, like, the last four months, he’s been doing for, like, the whole year,” Murray said. “So I need to try and keep that going, and the U.S. Open is always the next big goal.”

 

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.”