Service ace: Djokovic back with rebuilt serve at Aussie Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Novak Djokovic is back from six months off the tour with a remodeled service motion partly inspired by Andre Agassi and a growing confidence he can get his sore right elbow through the Australian Open.

No man has more Australian Open titles than Djokovic, who has six in all and – until last year’s shocking second-round exit – had won five of the six contested from 2011 to 2016.

Djokovic is seeded 14th and will be coming off just a couple of exhibition matches to prepare for his first-round encounter against Donald Young.

The 12-time major winner is in the same quarter as No. 4 Alexander Zverev, No. 5 Dominic Thiem and 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka, who confirmed Saturday he’d return at Melbourne Park from his own six-month layoff following surgery on his left knee.

They’re all in the same half of the draw as defending champion Roger Federer, who last year returned from an extended injury time out to beat Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final. Federer went on to win Wimbledon for his 19th major and finished the year ranked No. 2 behind Nadal, who won the French and U.S. Open titles.

That is giving Djokovic some hope.

“I mean, Roger and Rafa’s year last year has shown age is just a number, especially in Roger’s case,” Djokovic said Saturday in his pre-tournament news conference. “I mean, he’s a great example of someone that manages to take care of himself, knows how to prepare well and peak at the right time.

“He won a couple Grand Slams. Who would predict that after his six months of absence, so … everything is possible really.”

Djokovic had contested 51 consecutive Grand Slams until he missed last year’s U.S. Open during his rehabilitation.

Off the court, the 30-year-old Serbian said he enjoyed a closer-to-normal family life off the court, including being there when his wife, Jelena, gave birth to their second child – a daughter Tara in September.

On the court, he used the time to work closely with coaches Agassi and Radek Stepanek to refine his service motion to improve the technique and “release the load from the elbow, obviously something that I have to do because I have the injury.”

Now it’s a less dramatic, more compact swing and he was happy with how it worked in an exhibition win over Thiem earlier in the week.

“It’s not entirely different, but at the beginning even those small tweaks and changes have made a lot of difference mentally,” he said. “I needed time to kind of get used to that change, understand whether that’s good or not good for me.

Agassi had to modify his own service motion because of an injury in his career and he had input into the redesign for Djokovic.

“Both Radek and Andre have discussed a lot before the information came across to me,” Djokovic said. “They spent a lot of hours analyzing my serve. I did, too.”

Djokovic said his elbow wasn’t 100 percent rehabilitated, but he was convinced by medical experts that he wouldn’t do any further damage by playing in Australia.

Injuries to leading players have been a focus of attention in Australia. Nadal is returning from a lingering right knee problem and five-time finalist Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori have already withdrawn.

In recent months, meanwhile, ATP Finals winner Grigor Dimitrov and Zverev have moved up to No. 3 and No. 4 in the rankings, respectively, and are growing in confidence that they’re on the cusp of Grand Slam breakthroughs.

Dimitrov said he’s a better player than he was when he lost the semifinal here last year to Nadal, and Zverev is aiming to go deep into the second week for the first time at a major.

“I’ve showed on multiple occasions over the year that I can play and beat the best guys in the world,” Zverev said. “Not trying to sound cocky or anything, but I’ve always said that I’ve always been working hard physically, I’m always trying to improve the performance at the Grand Slams. Hopefully I can do so,” in Australia.

Nadal pulled out of the ATP Finals and skipped warmups tournaments before the Australian Open.

“Is the first time I am here without playing official match,” Nadal said. “But I feel good. I really hope to be ready. I feel myself more or less playing well.”

Nadal’s career has regularly been disrupted by injuries, but he sees a need for a more thorough examination of the tennis schedule after the latest spate of injuries.

“There is too many injuries on the tour. I am not the one to say, but somebody has to look about what’s going on,” he said. “When something is happening, you need to analyze why.”

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.”