Venus, Stephens, Isner out of Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens were upset early and the bleak opening day for Americans continued at the Australian Open on Monday with the women going 0 for 8 by mid-afternoon and John Isner joining them as a first-round casualty.

In her first match at Rod Laver Arena since a Williams sister was guaranteed to win the final almost 12 months ago, Venus Williams lost her opener to Belinda Bencic and ensured the title won’t stay in the family.

Venus lost last year’s final to younger sister Serena, who clinched an Open era-record 23rd major but hasn’t played a Grand Slam tournament since then because of her pregnancy and the birth of her first child.

The 6-3, 7-5 loss for Venus Williams was her first in five career meetings with Bencic, who lost to Serena in the first round last year.

“I don’t think I played a bad match. She just played above and beyond,” said seven-time major winner Venus Williams, who was playing her 18th Australian Open. “I just have to give her credit for that.

“I didn’t play so bad, I wasn’t missing every shot. Just didn’t work out.”

Bencic, who was born a couple of months after the last time there was no Williams in the second round at the Australian Open (1997), hit 32 winners, had 12 unforced errors and converted five of 11 break-point chances. Williams had 26 unforced errors and 22 winners.

Bencic credited playing with Roger Federer at the Hopman Cup – where they teamed up to win for Switzerland – with helping her recent improvement. She also had a new attitude against Williams, and she had Federer’s parents in the crowd for support.

“I was thinking a lot about the last matches. For the first matches, I think I had a little bit too much respect, played a little bit careful and safe,” Bencic said. “This time I really tried to come out and hit it big.”

U.S. Open champion Stephens was the first American to fall, losing 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2 loss to No. 34-ranked Zhang Shuai, followed by Williams and No. 10-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe, a semifinalist here and at the U.S. Open last year, who was feeling sick and frustrated in her match which Timea Babos rallied to win 7-6 (4), 6-2.

CiCi Bellis, the WTA’s Newcomer of the Year, was also among the eight U.S. women who were out by mid-afternoon – 16 are in the singles draw.

“Tennis is definitely a roller coaster,” Stephens said, reflecting on her eight-match losing streak since her Grand Slam breakthrough last September. “But I have learned to just not panic. It will be OK.”

No. 13-seeded Stephens had a chance to serve for the match in the 10th game of the second set but dropped her serve. She was outplayed in the tiebreaker and in the third set.

“For me now it’s not that great,” Stephen said, “but it’s nothing to panic about.”

No. 16 John Isner of the U.S. lost in four sets to Australian Matt Ebden.

Ryan Harrison bucked the trend for the Americans, beating Dudi Sela in five sets, advancing along with third-seeded Grigor Dimitrov – who beat qualifier Dennis Novak 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 – No. 10 Pablo Carreno Busta, No. 23 Gilles Muller, No. 30 Andrei Rublev and No. 31 Pablo Cuevas.

U.S. Open finalist and No. 11-seeded Kevin Anderson was the highest-ranked man eliminated, losing in five sets to Kyle Edmund – the only British man in the draw after five-time finalist Andy Murray withdrew.

No. 27 Philipp Kohlschreiber lost to Yoshihito Nishioka in five sets.

The 20-year-old Bencic saved five break points in the eighth game before a rain delay caused an almost half-hour suspension of play as the roof was closed on Rod Laver Arena. She returned on a roll, winning the next six points to hold serve and then clinch the set.

Vandeweghe was leading in her first set before a rain delay on Hisense Arena, but sickness and irritation caught up with her.

She yelled an obscenity near the end of the second set and that, combined with a time violation in a changeover while she waited for a banana, led to a point penalty.

“I felt like she was being quite in-your-face about her `Come ons.’ So it was more just explaining it to the umpire,” Vandeweghe said. As for the banana, she added: “I was just trying to wait for what I asked for to come and the chair umpire deemed that it wasn’t a good enough reason to wait for anything.”

Of the other U.S. women out in the first round, Sofia Kenin lost to No. 12 Julia Goerges – who extended her winning streak to 15 matches – Bellis lost to No. 30 Kiki Bertens, Alison Riske lost to Kirsten Flipkens and Taylor Townsend lost to No. 19 Magdalena Rybarikova.

French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko made a positive start with a 6-1, 6-4 win over 37-year-old Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 French Open winner, and No. 15 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova beat Kateryna Kozlova.

Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig had a 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4 win over former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur.

Other seeded players falling included No. 24 Dominika Cibulkova, the 2014 Australian Open finalist who lost to Kaia Kanepi, and No. 31 Ekaterina Makarova.

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?”