Simona Halep secures top ranking, Nadal vs Kyrgios in Beijing final

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Simona Halep will take over the top ranking after reaching the China Open final on Saturday, and Rafael Nadal will play Nick Kyrgios for the men’s title.

Halep beat French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 6-2, 6-4, ensuring that when the WTA rankings are updated on Monday she will be the first women’s No. 1 from Romania.

Halep could have reached No. 1 earlier but was upset in the French Open final by Ostapenko in their first career meeting.

“Of course it’s the best moment in my life, and I want just to keep it,” Halep said in Beijing. “And I have a few more dreams in my career. I tell you one, only one. To win a Grand Slam.”

Halep only had to reach the final this week – and not lose to Elina Svitolina of Ukraine in the final – to knock Garbine Muguruza from the top spot. Muguruza retired during her opening match on Monday because of a cold.

Top-seeded Nadal defeated third-seeded Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria 6-3, 4-6, 6-1 in the semifinals, his tour-leading 60th match win.
Dimitrov’s only victory against the Spaniard in 10 matches came last year in the China Open quarterfinals. On Saturday, his backhand cross-court winner secured the second set, on a second set point, on Nadal’s serve in the 10th game.

But Nadal took immediate control of the third set, racing to 4-0.

Kyrgios didn’t drop his serve in ousting second-seeded Alexander Zverev of Germany 6-3, 7-5 in the other semi. The Australian had an impressive 70 percent first-serve percentage and posted 11 aces to none for Zverev, who is normally known for his serving prowess.
Nadal and Kyrgios are tied at two matches apiece in their head-to-head, but the Australian won their latest outing in August in straight sets in the Cincinnati quarterfinals.

Nadal is one of three players, along with Roger Federer and Zverev, to win five titles this year. He won the China Open 12 years ago.

“It’s very important for me to continue with the positive feelings after winning the U.S. Open,” Nadal said. “To be back here and be in the final with that very tough draw I had since the beginning is a great effort.”

Looking for her second title of the year after winning in Madrid, Halep will play Caroline Garcia of France in the Beijing final. Garcia beat Petra Kvitova 6-3, 7-5 in the second semifinal.

Ostapenko entered the semis without dropping a set. But Halep dominated the first set, breaking Ostapenko’s serve in the first game at love. She cemented her lead with another break in the seventh game for 5-2 to serve out the set.

In the second, Halep surrendered a 3-2 lead with a service break in the sixth game, but went on to break serve again in the ninth. At 40-0 in the final game, Halep won with a clean forehand winner down the line.

Garcia, who saved a match point against Svitolina, is on a 10-match winning streak. Garcia lost in straight sets to Halep in the Montreal quarterfinals in their last meeting.

“That’s the kind of match I want to play, against the top players,” Garcia said of Sunday’s final against Halep. “She’s a very tricky player.”

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?”