Federer beats Cilic in Aussie final; wins 20th major title

AP
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Back where his career resurgence began with a drought-breaking triumph last year, Roger Federer cried as he lifted and kissed the Australian Open trophy for a sixth time and celebrated his 20th Grand Slam title.

Federer started Sunday’s final with an intensity that stunned sixth-seeded Marin Cilic, then held his nerve in a tense, momentum-shifting match before winning 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.

After going more than four years without winning a major title leading into last year’s Australian Open, Federer has now won three of the last five.

“I’m so happy. It’s unbelievable,” Federer said, taking deep breaths and choking back tears. “Of course, winning is an absolute dream come true – the fairytale continues for us, for me, after the great year I had last year, its’ incredible.”

The great Rod Laver, who lends his name to the center court at Melbourne Park, was in the crowd taking photos to mark the occasion of Federer becoming the first man to win 20 majors.

Federer started to tear up at the end of the trophy ceremony as he thanked his team in the stands. “I love you guys. Thank you,” he said. He then received a standing ovation as tears streamed down his face.

At the age of 36 years, 173 days, Federer became the second-oldest man to win a Grand Slam title in the Open era after Ken Rosewall, who won the 1972 Australian Open at 37.

“Big congratulations to Roger and his team – it’s amazing what you guys do,” Cilic said. “It was an amazing journey for me to come here to the final. I had a slight chance at the beginning of the fifth, but Roger played a great fifth set.”

It was clear early on that the crowd would be heavily pro-Federer. The arena was filled with the red and white colors of the Swiss flag, with Federer supporters wearing Swiss flags on their shirts, hats, signs and faces. Looking ahead to a possible Federer victory, one fan held a sign reading, “The Big Two-Oh. Go Roger!”

Federer was quick off the mark, getting service breaks in the first and third games and forcing Cilic to go to his equipment bag for a new racket after just 12 points. Federer only conceded two points on his serve in the opening set, which lasted just 24 minutes and was played under a closed roof because of the heat outside.

But Cilic rallied in the second, getting his big forehand working and, after missing a set point on Federer’s serve in the 10th game, leveled the match in the tiebreaker.

Federer won the third set in 29 minutes and was up a break in the fourth but momentum swung fully again, with Cilic going on a roll to level the match. Federer’s first-serve percentage plummeted from above 80 in the third set to 36 in the fourth as Cilic attacked.

Cilic had two chances to break Federer’s serve in the first game of the fifth set, but wasted them both with two unforced errors. He then double-faulted twice in the second game to drop his own serve, giving Federer the decisive lead in the set.

Federer had won eight of their previous nine matches, including last year’s Wimbledon final. His only defeat was in the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 2014, where Cilic claimed his first major title.

The Swiss great wasn’t about to lose this one. Federer increased his level again, breaking Cilic again in the sixth game and then closing out at love – his celebrations delayed slightly by an unsuccessful challenge from Cilic on match point. It was a similar end to his five-set win over Rafael Nadal here last year and, just like 12 months ago, the tears flowed.

The win wasn’t entirely without some controversy with organizers deciding early to close the roof for the final, just as they had for the afternoon mixed doubles final when Mate Pavic and Gabriela Dabrowski beat Rohan Bopanna and Timea Babos for the title.

Former champions and commentators questioned the rationale, saying there’d been hotter days earlier in the tournament when the heat policy was not enacted.

Tournament referee Wayne McEwen can introduce the policy when the temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and a measure called the wet-bulb globe temperature – which combines factors such as heat, humidity and breeze – reaches 32.5C (90.5F).

The temperature hit 38C (100F) an hour before the men’s final and the tournament organizers issued a statement saying that the WGBT reading was 32.7C (91F) at that time.

“With no dramatic reduction forecast, the referee exercised his discretion and called for the roof to be closed,” Tennis Australia said in a statement. “At no other time during the event this year has the WBGT reading reached the threshold.”

 

Australian Open director: Novak Djokovic’s hamstring had 3-cm tear

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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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?”