Djokovic under threat from Murray heading into Paris Masters

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PARIS — Novak Djokovic heads into the Paris Masters with his No. 1 ranking under serious threat from Andy Murray, and in the rare position of being second favorite.

Djokovic is looking to win the tournament for the fourth straight year and fifth time overall. But he has been in erratic form over the past few months and is not playing with the confidence he showed here last year, when he crushed Murray 6-2, 6-4 in the final.

On current form Murray has the edge, and the second-ranked Scot can overtake Djokovic if he wins and the Serb doesn’t reach the final.

“You’ve got to give (Murray) credit for what he’s done in the last three or four months, the second part of the year is quite incredible,” Djokovic told reporters Sunday on the eve of the tournament. “He’s playing maybe the best tennis he’s ever played, very consistent, very strong. He definitely deserves to be in the position of being No. 1 at the end of the year. But that doesn’t just depend on him.”

Djokovic guarantees to keep No. 1 if he reaches the final, and Murray is not overly optimistic of knocking him off his perch.

“Obviously he could win the event and, if I lose in the first round, then I am a long way from being No. 1,” said Murray, who trails Djokovic 10-24 in career matches. “I’ve never won (the Paris Masters) before, so to just expect that you’re going to win the tournament would be silly.”

Murray won the Erste Bank Open in Vienna on Sunday for his third straight tournament win and career-high seventh of the year.

“In some other years, a year like this would easily (have) been enough to be No. 1 in the world,” Murray said. “But I am obviously getting closer.”

Murray, who has a first-round bye, will start his tournament against Fernando Verdasco or Feliciano Lopez.

Like Murray, Djokovic also has seven titles this year, matching his tally from 2013 and 2014, but will fall short of the 11 he won in an utterly dominant 2015.

The 29-year-old Djokovic owns a record 30 Masters titles. He is a 12-time Grand Slam champion and has won all four majors.

But after winning the elusive French Open for the first time in June, his form evaporated.

“Winning the French Open brought a lot of joy to me, but on the other hand has taken away a lot from me,” he said. “I felt a little bit exhausted, I must say, and maybe less motivated. So I had to rediscover that feeling of being on the court and pushing myself.”

He lost in the third round at Wimbledon to American Sam Querrey and in the first round to Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina at the Olympic Games.

Although Djokovic won the first set in the U.S. Open final, Stan Wawrinka rallied to beat him.

At the Shanghai Masters two weeks ago, Djokovic lost 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals to Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, an opponent he had beaten in five previous meetings.

“The last couple of months were not easy,” Djokovic said. “Mentally I just had to redefine my goals, things that are happening on and off the court.”

Djokovic clearly needed to gather his thoughts.

“It’s important to take time,” he said. “Really understand what the next step is going to be, professionally, privately.”

He feels much better now.

“I feel great and rejuvenated, very happy to be back in the city where I have wonderful memories,” he said. “It gives me a lot of emotions and butterflies in my stomach when I think about the last time I was here.”

Djokovic, who also won here in 2009, faces either Nicolas Almagro of Spain or Gilles Muller of Luxembourg in the second round.

Milos Raonic, who also has a first-round bye, is still feeling the effects of ankle injury that forced him to withdraw ahead of his China Open semifinal three weeks ago.

“It’s a partial tear,” said the big-serving Canadian. “It’s still a little bit of an issue … I tape it up to limit how much my ankle can move.”

Associated Press writer Eric Willemsen in Vienna contributed to this report.

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?”