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Djokovic ready to chase Federer, Nadal

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NEW YORK (AP) Now that Novak Djokovic has the same number of Grand Slam titles as his childhood idol, Pete Sampras, it’s realistic for him to start thinking about chasing the only two men ahead of him, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

If Djokovic is reluctant to speak publicly about the idea of going from his current total of 14 to Nadal’s 17 or Federer’s 20, the Serb’s coach isn’t.

“The 14 is a number. I mean, it’s amazing: 14!” Marian Vajda said Sunday night with a giddy chuckle, his eyes wide, after Djokovic got there with a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over Juan Martin del Potro in the U.S. Open final.

“Years ago, I would say that Rafa and Roger went too far from him, you know? Too (far) ahead of him with the Grand Slams. Now I have a feeling he’s (catching) up with them,” Vajda continued, slapping the back of his right hand on his left palm for emphasis. “He’s so close now, three from Rafa and six – OK, six is still unbelievable – away (from) Roger.”

“Amazing” is a perfect word for this trio, which is rightfully back atop the rankings for the first time in 3+ years, with Nadal at No. 1, Federer at No. 2 and, as of Monday, Djokovic at No. 3.

They have combined to win 47 of the past 55 major championships, dating to the 2005 French Open.

That’s 85 percent. Quite a contrast to the current state of the women’s game, where eight players won the past eight majors.

Here’s another way to think about it all: When Sampras beat Andre Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final, in what would turn out to be Pistol Pete’s last professional match, it not only established a new record for men’s Slam trophies at 14, it also was two more than anyone else in history had managed to collect.

And now? Sampras has been equaled or surpassed by three players – and it’s only 16 years later.

Matching him was meaningful to Djokovic, whose earliest memories of tennis involve watching Sampras on TV at Wimbledon.

“There is a lot of significance of me being, now, shoulder-to-shoulder in terms of Grand Slam wins with him. It’s truly incredible when you think about it. I watched him win one of his first Wimbledon championships, and I grew up playing and thinking that one day I’ll be able to do what he does,” Djokovic said. “To actually be here, it’s a dream come true.”

Agassi, who finished with eight majors, and Sampras used to credit each with making the other better.

Same goes for the Big 3 of today (with all due respect to Andy Murray, he of the three majors plus two Olympic singles gold medals, it really isn’t a Big 4).

“Maybe 10 years ago, I would say I’m not so happy to be part of this era with Nadal and Federer. Actually, today I am. I really am. I feel like these guys, rivalries with these guys, matches with Federer and Nadal, have made me the player I am, have shaped me into the player I am today,” Djokovic said, his shiny silver U.S. Open trophy resting a few feet away.

“I have utmost respect for what they have achieved on the court, but also the champions, role models, they are off the court. I think we have pushed each other to the limit every time we get to play each other. For me, that was always an ultimate challenge: to play Nadal or Federer anywhere,” Djokovic continued. “I had to figure out early in my career, when I was losing most of the big matches (at) the Grand Slams against them, what it takes for me to actually kind of improve and develop my game to be able to challenge them, to be able to start winning against them when it matters the most. I think that was one of the most important, so to say, moments and periods of my life, my tennis career, my development. I owe it to them.”

The other beneficiaries: tennis fans.

And now the world gets to watch the next phase of this and wonder: How many more majors can Federer, 37 and coming off a fourth-round exit at the U.S. Open, add to his total? What about Nadal, 32, who retired from his semifinal at Flushing Meadows because of pain in his right knee, a problem off-and-on for years?

After Djokovic, 31, watched them increase their advantages over him while he went more than two years without a major, hampered by an injured right elbow that required surgery in February, he is now got his game in order. He showed off all of his court-covering, foe-frustrating, defense-to-offense skills down the stretch on the way to his third U.S. Open title, claiming the last 16 sets he played.

As Vajda put it: “Back at his best.”

Let the chase begin.

Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. Write to him at hfendrich(at)ap.org or reach him via Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

More AP tennis coverage: https://www.apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Djokovic wins World Sportsman of the Year at Laureus World Sports Awards

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MONACO  — Novak Djokovic, Tiger Woods, Lindsey Vonn and the France national soccer team were among the winners at the Laureus World Sports Awards, with Woods claiming the Comeback Award 19 years after he was first recognized.

Djokovic matched Usain Bolt’s record by being named World Sportsman of the Year for the fourth time after winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He also earned the honor in 2012, 2015 and 2016.

Woods, who won the inaugural World Sportsman of the Year award in 2000, won the Tour Championship in September for his 80th PGA Tour title and his first since August 2013.

Vonn, who retired during the recent Alpine skiing world championships , took home the Spirit of Sport Award, which is given to an athlete for relentless dedication to his or her career, and France was honored for winning the World Cup in July.

Simone Biles was named World Sportswoman of the Year for winning four gold, one silver and one bronze medal at the gymnastics world championships. Naomi Osaka won the Breakthrough Award for winning the U.S. Open and Chloe Kim was named the World Action Sportsperson of the Year.

The awards were given in recognition of outstanding sports performance in 2018.

Wawrinka loses to Monfils in first final since knee surgeries

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ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — Three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka’s rebuilt knee couldn’t quite carry him to the title in Rotterdam on Sunday.

Wawrinka lost his first final since his comeback a year ago from left knee surgeries, succumbing 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 to Gael Monfils of France at the ABN AMRO World Tournament.

It was the Frenchman’s eighth career title.

“I tried a couple of times here. I lost the final in 2016,” Monfils told Dutch national broadcaster NOS courtside. He said it was special to win a tournament that his idol, Arthur Ashe, also won. Ashe won back-to-back titles in Rotterdam in 1975 and ’76.

Unseeded Wawrinka reached the final by beating top-seeded Kei Nishikori in three sets on Saturday.

But the Swiss finally ran out of steam in the final set as Monfils stepped up his game.

“In the third set I was a little bit more aggressive and I go a bit more for my shots, I served bigger and that helped me a lot,” Monfils said.

Wawrinka was going for his 17th career title and second in Rotterdam, after winning in 2015.

It was his first final since the 2017 French Open, where he previously met Monfils in the fourth round.

Monfils also needed three sets to overcome fifth-seeded Daniil Medvedev in the semifinals, but outlasted Wawrinka in a match that took 1 hour, 44 minutes.

After they shared the first two sets, Monfils was more consistent than Wawrinka in the decisive third.

Already trailing 4-2, Wawrinka hit three unforced errors to lose the seventh game and allow Monfils to serve out the match.