Nadal wary of saying he’s fully recovered from thigh injury

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MONACO (AP) Rafael Nadal is wary of saying he’s fully recovered from a troublesome right thigh injury as he defends his Monte Carlo Masters title.

The top-ranked Spaniard only recently returned to action at the Davis Cup, after a recurrence of the injury forced him out of the Mexico Open and then Masters tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami last month.

Those setbacks followed his crushing disappointment at the Australian Open, where he was forced to retire in the fifth set of the quarterfinal against Marin Cilic.

Nadal had expected to make his comeback in Acapulco, but the injury flared up again during a last practice session with French player Adrian Mannarino. Looking back on it Sunday, the 16-time Grand Slam champion said it was mentally “even harder than what happened in Australia” because he was so convinced he would play.

“I did all the things the right way, practicing one week before, to be ready for the tournament and then it happened,” Nadal told reporters. “You’re in Acapulco, you fly all the way … Then the doctors told me: `You will not be able to play in Indian Wells, Miami.’ So that was hard to accept.”

So was the painstakingly dull recovery which followed.

“I was unable to do any physical work because the psoas (muscle) was affecting all the movements I could do,” he said. “It was a boring time because I don’t like to be doing nothing.”

Nadal wasn’t bored last weekend, however, winning both his Davis Cup singles against Germany without dropping a set. Although he appears to have slotted straight back into his clay groove, his Acapulco setback leaves him circumspect about speaking too soon.

“Well it happened twice, so you never know,” he said. “Of course it stays a little bit in your mind.”

Nadal begins his bid for a record-extending 11th Monte Carlo title with a second-round match against either Aljaz Bedene or Mirza Basic. He needs to win the tournament or Roger Federer will reclaim top ranking in their seemingly endless fight for supremacy. They have won the last five Grand Slams, three for Federer

But with 20-time major winner Federer again skipping the clay season, Nadal must wait a while longer to try and avenge a run of five straight defeats to the Swiss star.

He took a swipe, although an amiable one, at Federer.

“He says he will love to play against me again in best of five sets on clay, and I thought he would play Roland Garros,” Nadal said, with a wry smile. “A few days later he says he will not play in one (clay) event, so there’s a little bit of controversy with that.”

Nadal’s victory at Monte Carlo last year made him the first men’s tennis player in the Open era to win the same title 10 times. He then won a 10th French Open.

He feels at home at the picture-postcard tournament with its center court perched over the glittering Mediterranean sea. The Monte Carlo tournament launched his career as a scraggly-haired 16-year-old in 2003, although the sun had long set when he beat defending French Open champion Albert Costa under floodlights in the second round.

“I always feel good when I am here,” Nadal said. “It’s been a love story.”

The only Monte Carlo final that the 31-year-old Nadal has lost was to Novak Djokovic in 2013. Djokovic added another Monte Carlo title in 2015, during his pomp.

But the former top-ranked Serb looks a shadow of the player he was. Hindered by a persistent right elbow injury, his ranking has tumbled to 13.

Earlier this month, Djokovic stopped working with Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek – the latest in a series of coaching changes for the 12-time major champion.

After significant rest during the second half of last year and a medical procedure in February, Djokovic spoke confidently of being pain-free – at long last.

Then, he lost his first match at the Miami Open in straight sets.

Djokovic used to be the player everyone was chasing. He even beat Nadal during a glorious run of seven straight finals and holds a 26-24 winning record against him.

They have won a record 30 Masters each, but Nadal looks the more likely to get No. 31.

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?”