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Dropouts, withdrawals lead to calls for WTA rules changes

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Connecticut Open tournament director Anne Worcester heard the same story over and over last week from top players who had committed to her event, the final WTA tuneup before the U.S. Open.

They had an injury or an illness and while it was nothing serious, with the major in New York coming up … well, you understand.

Worcester believes it’s time for the WTA to look at its rules and its schedule and consider making some changes to better serve the tournaments that want to put on a good show, the fans who spend money to see top players and the players who are often stretched too thin over an 11-month season.

“It’s not just our week, the week before the U.S. Open,” she said. “If you look at the women’s tennis tour, especially this summer, there have been too many withdrawals and retirements.”

The problem was acute in New Haven. The tournament lost top seed Simona Halep, who withdrew on Monday after playing in two consecutive finals. The official reason was a sore right Achilles.

“It’s tough to make this decision,” Halep said. “But I have to. I have to rest.”

Sixth-seeded Ashleigh Barty, seventh-seeded Kiki Bertens – who won just days before in Cincinnati – and Johanna Konta all withdrew, citing a virus.

Others tried, but couldn’t make it through the week. American CoCo Vandeweghe, who like Halep received a wild card into the tournament, retired from her first-round match with an ankle injury. Three-time champion and third-seeded Petra Kvitova made it to the quarterfinals before leaving after one set with a sore shoulder. Reigning Olympic champion Monica Puig left her semifinal match after eight games with an abdominal strain.

As a result, Carla Suarez Navarro made it to Saturday’s final while completing just one full match and fewer than four sets.

Worcester said she believed all of those who dropped out wanted to play and were not making frivolous decisions. Many top players prefer not to play at all the week before a Grand Slam, and those that do tend to be cautious with anything that could prevent them from playing for the bigger title, prize money and prestige.

All those who dropped out of New Haven, where the champion receives just over $136,000, are expected to play in New York, where players earn $20,000 more than that just for winning two singles matches.

Worcester said the real issue is the WTA’s circuit structure and long season.

In addition to the majors, the WTA has four Premier Mandatory events: Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing. A player must also compete in four of the Premier 5 tournaments – Doha, Rome, Wuhan, Montreal and Cincinnati – and two of 12 other premier events, of which New Haven is one.

That would be fine, Worcester said, if they weren’t also being drawn into so many other smaller tournaments around the world. That, she said, results in tired and injured players who end up missing or dropping out of premier-level events.

“We have too many international-level tournaments on the WTA Tour, with a play-down rule that is nowhere near as strong as it needs to be,” she said. “Players should only be allowed to play down to that international level in very specific, discrete situations and right now it’s too easy for too many top-10 players to play down.”

Worcester said she’s been told the WTA may add a couple more premier-level dates earlier in the summer, which could allow Connecticut to move away from the week before the U.S. Open.

She’d also like to find a structure that would allow top players who play deep into one tournament the ability to get an extra day of rest before the next tournament. That would mean adjusting the size of the main draw to allow more byes.

The WTA, asked to respond to the criticism, issued a statement saying it is always willing to look at changes that will make the tour better.

“It is disappointing when withdrawals occur as the players want to compete and we want our fans to be able to count on seeing their favorite stars at their local tournaments,” the organization said. “We are confident that our calendar allows players to commit to a schedule that best suits their individual needs and goals while delivering an exciting product to our fans.”

Serena falls to Pliskova in Aussie Open quarters

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Karolina Pliskova says her “mind was in the locker room” when she was down 5-1 in the third set of her Australian Open quarterfinal against 23-time major winner Serena Williams.

In one of the most stunning comebacks at the Australian Open, the seventh-seeded Pliskova saved four match points as she rallied to win the last six games to clinch a 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 victory and a semifinal spot against U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka.

“I didn’t have too many chances in the third set. I was a little bit too passive. Obviously mentally down,” Pliskova said. “So I just said, ‘Let’s try this game, on 5-2, maybe I’m going to have couple of chances.’

“She got a bit shaky at the end, so I took my chances, and I won.”

Pliskova’s win over the seven-time Australian Open titlist means there’ll be a first-time women’s champion at Melbourne Park this year.

In the other semifinal, two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova will play Danielle Collins, who had never won a Grand Slam match before this tournament. Kvitova’s best previous run at Melbourne was to the semifinals in 2012.

‘Barbecued chicken’: Tiafoe’s Australia run ended by Nadal

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal is back to feeling healthy. Probably not a coincidence that he’s back in the Australian Open semifinals.

Playing his familiar brand of court-covering, ball-bashing, opponent-frustrating tennis, Nadal claimed 20 of his first 23 service points and saved the only two break chances he faced, ending American Frances Tiafoe’s best Grand Slam run with a dominating 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory Tuesday night.

“I feel lucky to be where I am after all the things I went through,” said Nadal, who quit during his quarterfinal at Melbourne Park a year ago because of a right leg problem, again during his semifinal at the U.S. Open in September because of a painful right knee, and then had offseason surgery on his right ankle.

“Not easy situations,” he said, summing it up.

Nadal, 32, reached his 30th major semifinal and prevented Tiafoe from getting to his first, two days after he turned 21.

“I knew he was going to bring crazy intensity. I knew the ball was going to be jumping. I knew if he got hold of a forehand, it was going to be barbecued chicken,” Tiafoe said. “But point in, point out, I’ve never seen someone so locked in.”

The two hadn’t played each other before, though they did practice together at Roland Garros back in 2014, when Tiafoe was a teen in the junior competition.

Entering this year’s Australian Open, the 39th-ranked Tiafoe had never been past the third round at a major. But he knocked off two-time Slam runner-up Kevin Anderson and 20th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov on the way to the quarterfinals, drawing plenty of attention for his play – and his bare-chested, biceps-slapping celebrations inspired by LeBron James.

As usual, Tiafoe was animated and talkative Tuesday. He lamented missed shots with a self-admonishing “Oh, Frances!” He marked good ones with a shout of “Let’s go!”

But it all came to a screeching halt against Nadal, a 17-time major champion.

Tiafoe, who is from Maryland, was broken the initial time he served in each set, which was all Nadal needed, given how well he handled his own service games. He’s been reluctant to go into detail about a recent tweak he made to his serve, saying it’s “nothing drastic, nothing dramatic.”

He spoke after Tuesday’s win about going for winners on his first forehand following a serve, something he called “very important … at this stage of my career.”

Whatever he’s doing is working. And how. Nadal has won every set he’s played in the tournament, the first time he’s done that en route to the semifinals in Australia since 2009, the only time he won the championship.

“I am playing well,” he said. “I did a lot of things well during the whole week and a half.”

Now Nadal goes up against another opponent much younger than he is, 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, who upset Roger Federer in the fourth round.

The 14th-seeded Tsitsipas became the first player from Greece to earn a semifinal berth at a major, beating No. 22 Roberto Bautista Agut 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2) earlier Tuesday.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Tsitsipas said about his matchup against Nadal. “I feel all right with my game. I feel like I can do something good against him.”

Asked about all of these kids trying to elbow their way to the top of tennis, Nadal smiled and said: “They can wait a little bit.”