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Novak Djokovic tries to remain optimistic despite another setback

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MADRID – Novak Djokovic is trying his best to stay optimistic despite a disappointing start to his season.

Former No. 1-ranked Djokovic has struggled since returning from a layoff for a right elbow injury and is yet to reach the quarterfinals in the six tournaments he has played this year. His latest defeat was against Kyle Edmund in the second round of the Madrid Open on Wednesday.

“Obviously I’m disappointed from losing this match, but I can be happy with the progress of the level of tennis,” Djokovic said. “There are positives to take out from this. But obviously disappointing to go out early in the tournament.”

Djokovic lost in the third round in Monte Carlo a few weeks ago, following second-round exits at both Miami and Indian Wells. The No. 12-ranked Djokovic also failed to advance past the last 16 at the Australian Open, which was the last tournament he won three consecutive matches.

“It’s a process,” Djokovic said. “It’s something I have to accept, I have to embrace. In general I feel much better about everything that is happening on the court and around tennis in general … than maybe two months ago.”

In a bid to get back on track, Djokovic has reunited with coach Marian Vajda and trainer Gebhard Gritsch after stints working with former players Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek.

“If there is anybody that knows my game well, knows me as a person well, especially in the last decade, it’s these two guys,” Djokovic said following his first-round in Madrid. “I think it’s going to take a little bit of time for us to really get my game together the way we want to. Even though they know my game very well, it’s still a process.”

Djokovic has won 12 major titles but last year failed to reach a final at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time since 2009. Until he withdrew from the 2017 U.S. Open, the Serbian star had played in 51 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments and reached the final 21 times.

Despite his 6-6 win-loss match record since return from the elbow injury, Djokovic tried to put his slump into perspective.

“I’ve played this sport so many years and had a bunch of success. I try to always remind myself and be grateful for that,” he said. “Nobody is forcing me to play this sport. I want to do it. That’s where I draw my strength. As long as I keep going, as long as I love the sport, I’ll keep going.”

Top-ranked Rafael Nadal was confident Djokovic would regain his best form.

“I think he’s going step-by-step to be able to recover and be at the category he deserves. I don’t have any doubt that he’s going to be back up at the highest level,” said Nadal, who himself has returned from lengthy injury layoffs to add to lift his career tally to 16 major titles. “What Novak did on this sport is amazing. He will continue doing a lot of great things in the future. I don’t have any doubt of that.”

The 30-year-old Djokovic admitted he may have tried to return to action too soon after the injury. He was off for six months but the elbow started hurting again when he began training to get ready for the preseason.

“I clenched my teeth and I kind of went through it, played Australia, but wasn’t really ready,” Djokovic said. “Then I had to do surgery. It takes time to overcome that surgery. It has obviously some consequences on your body that I never faced before, I never knew before, because I never had any surgery before.”

He said he doesn’t regret anything and wants to learn from the “new experiences” that he had to go through.

“I just think that’s life,” he said. “That was something that was supposed to happen for me, to teach me some lessons, to make me stronger, to allow me to grow, to evolve as a person, as a player. I’m grateful. That’s all I can say. There are worse things in life.”

 

John Isner advances to final on Newport’s hot grass courts

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NEWPORT, R.I. — Top-seeded John Isner overcame extremely hot conditions and a first-set tiebreaker loss to beat fourth-seeded Ugo Humbert of France 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3 on Saturday and advance to the Hall of Fame Open final.

The 34-year-old American will face Alexander Bublik, a 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-4 winner over Marcel Granollers of Spain. The 22-year-old Bublik, from Kazakhstan, reached his first career ATP final.

The matches were played before induction ceremonies for the 2019 class of Li Na from China, Mary Pierce of France, and Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

Playing in a feel-like temperature in the 90s, Isner, ranked 15th in the world coming into the week, broke in the second game of the final set – the first break of the match – en route to his fourth final on Newport’s grass courts. He won in 2011, `12 and ’17.

“The length of the match is fine. That’s what happens, especially with matches like mine,” the big-serving Isner said. “It’s really hot and humid and takes a lot (out) of you. To be honest, I don’t feel really great right now.”

Isner is into his 28th ATP final.

In a match that lasted 2 hours, 44 minutes, started in sunshine and ended with shadows creeping nearly halfway across the court, Isner had two aces in the final game to go up 40-0.

He hit a forehand winner at the net and pumped his fist when it ended.

Isner hit a forehand winner down the line to win the second-set tiebreaker and force the deciding set.

“That was a big shot,” he said. “I always say when I win the second set, I’m going to win the match.”

Bublik broke in the fifth game of the final set to take control of his match.

Just before he closed it out, an elderly female fan, seated courtside in the sun, was carried out on a chair by two men with ushers helping. The feel-like temperature at the time was in the upper 90s with the sun beating down on the court and some spectators.

“It’s hot,” said Bublik when asked about the conditions during a post-match interview on the court. “I’m just glad I won a match.”

The stadium seating and courtside seats – both located in the sun and usually at least about three-quarters full on induction day – had less than a hundred people seated for both semifinals.

Li Na’s journey to stretch from China to Hall of Fame

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NEW YORK — Li Na remembers first watching a tennis match on TV, drawn to the unforgettable style of one of the players.

Andre Agassi had long hair, an earring and wore denim shorts, and made an instant fan in China.

“Andre Agassi is my role model,” Li said.

Li went on to become one herself.

The first player from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles title, she will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this weekend, celebrated not only for her skills on the court but for her contribution to the growth of the sport in her country.

“She’s like an icon in China. She’s a huge superstar,” said Mike Silverman, the director of sport for New York’s City Parks Foundation.

Li conducted a clinic with children from the organization on Thursday and her influence was obvious. Many of the young players were Asian, including one teenage boy Silverman thinks is good enough to get a college scholarship. They were probably too young to remember much of her career – she retired in 2014 because of knee problems – but her impact didn’t end when her playing days did.

“There’s no question that Li Na, when she was playing and even now, tennis in China has never been the same since she won the French Open,” Silverman said. “It changed everything.”

That was in 2011, when more than 116 million people in China watched the final. Li added a second major title in 2014 at the Australian Open after twice losing in its final, rose to No. 2 in the WTA rankings and earned more than 500 singles wins.

“At least I always try my best in tennis on the court,” Li said. “If you try everything I think one day for sure there will be payback.”

The mother of two children is a little nervous about the induction ceremony in Newport, Rhode Island, as she tries to put together her thoughts in English. But perhaps she can take a lesson from something else she admired about Agassi.

“He never cared about what other people say, he just did his own,” said Li, who is joined in this year’s class by fellow two-time Grand Slam singles champions Mary Pierce of France and Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia.

Li said she can see the growth of tennis in China, where the WTA Finals will be played in Shenzhen and which got another event on the tour’s calendar this year when the former Connecticut Open was moved to Zhengzhou.

“It’s not only good for the athletes, it’s also good for the fans to have less traveling,” Li said. “They can see a high-level tournament in China.”

Fans can see plenty of them, as there are nine women’s tournaments in China after the U.S. Open. The country may not have a long tennis history, but Li thinks it will continue to get bigger.

“For me, I think China tennis is still young,” she said. “They can have a lot of time to grow up.”