Federer deflects attention to Nadal, Djokovic in Australia

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Roger Federer prefers to think of Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic as the favorites for the Australian Open title, despite entering as defending champion and coming off a worry-free preparation.

“I play down my chances just because I don’t think a 36-year-old should be a favorite of a tournament,” Federer said Sunday on the eve of the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, “It should not be the case.

“That’s why I see things more relaxed, you know, at a later stage of my career.”

The 19-time major winner can afford to relax slightly longer, given the half of the draw that he shares with Djokovic doesn’t start until day two. Top-ranked Nadal will get under way Monday night against Victor Estrella Burgos on Rod Laver Arena, where he lost the final in five sets to Federer last year.

All four singles finalists were 30 or older here last year in what became a tournament for the ages, and three of them are back.

Serena Williams beat her older sister Venus Williams in the final to capture an Open era-record 23rd major here last year but decided against defending her title because she didn’t have enough time to recover from health issues after a complicated childbirth in September.

Venus Williams is seeded fifth and is second match scheduled on center court to get her 77th major under way with a challenging opener against Belinda Bencic.

She’s 4-0 in career head-to-heads against 20-year-old Bencic – who reached a career-high No. 7 ranking in 2016 and who helped Federer win the Hopman Cup title for Switzerland earlier this month – but is coming off an abbreviated preparation that included a loss in the second round to eventual champion Angelique Kerber at the Sydney International last week.

At 37, Venus Williams among the top contenders at Melbourne Park. Others in action on Monday include seventh-seeded Jelena Ostapenko, who meets Francesca Schiavone in a match featuring current vs. former French Open champions, No. 2-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, who opens against Mihaela Buzarnescu, and U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens against Zhang Shuai.

Simona Halep is the No. 1 seed in the women’s draw, and one of six women who can hold the No. 1 ranking at the end of the Australian Open. Halep, who has had back-to-back first-round exits on her last two trips to Melbourne Park, opens on day two against Australian wild-card entry Destanee Aiava.

Only two men can hold the top ranking in the first week of February – Nadal or Federer – regardless of what No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov or No. 4 Alexander Zverev or anybody else does in Melbourne.

Federer returns in contrasting circumstances to his appearance in 2017, when he was coming off a six-month break for an injured left knee and had low expectations about ending a Grand Slam title drought that dated to Wimbledon in 2012.

“This year I hope to win the first few rounds and get rolling hopefully, whereas last year I was just hoping to win,” a match, Federer told his pre-tournament news conference Sunday. “It was more of a `let’s see what happens’ kind of tournament, maybe similar to what Novak or Stan (Wawrinka) or others are going through this year.”

Six-time Australian Open winner Djokovic has been sidelined for six months with an injured right elbow, returning with a remodeled service motion, and 2014 champion Wawrinka has also been out of the game since Wimbledon after surgery on his knee.

Nadal, who won the French and U.S. Open titles last year, has also had a limited preparation restricted to couple of exhibition matches last week as he recovers from a sore knee.

None of that makes them any less of a threat to Federer.

“Rafa, with the year that he’s had, and Novak with the six titles he’s had here, even if it’s unknown how he’s feeling, they could very well be the favorites, too,” Federer said. “If you’re in the draw, you give yourself a chance. That’s what happened for me last year – all ended up way better than I thought it would, as you know.”

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

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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.”

Australia beats Croatia 2-1 to reach Davis Cup final

Day Four - Davis Cup Finals 2022
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MALAGA, Spain – Australia had to fight back twice to reach its first Davis Cup final in 19 years after beating Croatia 2-1.

Lleyton Hewitt’s team recovered from losing the first singles. Then the Australian doubles pair battled back from a set down in the decider.

Australia won its 28th and last title in 2003. It has finally got back to the final.

“I am so proud. Australia has a really rich history in this competition,” said Hewitt, who played a record 43 Davis Cup ties for Australia from 1999-2018.

“We have been fortunate to win it all on a number of occasions a long time ago. And I know what it meant to me as a player to play a final, and I am glad these guys can play it.”

Borna Coric put Croatia ahead by beating Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-4, 6-3, but Alex de Minaur leveled after defeating Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-2 to send it to the doubles.

Jordan Thompson and Max Purcell then secured the semifinal win against Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic by 6-7 (3), 7-5, 6-4.

“This is what this team is about, that never-say-die attitude,” De Minaur said.

Canada will face Italy on Saturday in the other semifinal.

In the opener, Kokkinakis struck 11 aces, but Coric was able to break him once in each set.

“On my serve, I felt like it was an ace or he put it back on my toes,” Kokkinakis said.

Cilic, who was on the Croatia team that won the title in 2018, committed 10 double faults. That erratic serve helped De Minaur break Cilic four times and level his head-to-head record with the former U.S Open winner at two wins each.

Thompson and Purcell bettered the more experienced pair of Mektic and Pavic, both ranked in the top 10 in doubles. Thompson and Purcell combined for 13 aces, broke the Croats twice, and never dropped a service game to come back after losing the first-set tiebreaker.

Two-time winner Croatia was the runner-up last year.

“It proved too difficult on the court today,” Cilic said. “(But) for us it has been a great year again after the finals last year to reach the semis.”

The final is on Sunday on the indoor court in Malaga.