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Osaka set for showdown against Stephens at WTA Finals

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SINGAPORE — Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens, the last two U.S. Open champions, will make their career debuts at the WTA Finals by playing each other in their first match in Singapore on Monday.

The initial stage of the eight-player WTA Finals field is a round-robin competition with two teams of four players. The two players with the best record from each round-robin group advance to next Saturday’s semifinals.

It’s been a whirlwind six weeks for Osaka, a dual Japanese-American citizen who plays under the Japanese flag, since winning the U.S. Open.

Her Open victory – the second title of her career with the first coming at Indian Wells in April – was marred by controversy as opponent Serena Williams initiated a number of run-ins with umpire Carlos Ramos during the match.

“For me, I think I’m playing tournament after tournament, so I don’t really have time to think about, like, my life changing or anything,” said Osaka, of her new celebrity status. “So, yeah, I feel like I would need the year to end to maybe process more.

“I mean, with the recognition part, I do feel a bit different,” she added. “Like before it was only Japan I felt like people know me. But now like even here, I guess this is Asia, too, though, so it doesn’t really count, but like in the airports and stuff. I just think that that’s kind of funny.”

Stephens, 25, who won the U.S. Open in 2017, is looking forward to this second outing against Osaka. She won their first meeting in the 2016 Acapulco quarterfinals in straight sets.

“I think it will be super fun and it’s a great matchup,” Stephens said. “Obviously everyone works all year long to get here. It’s my debut here as well as hers, so it’s new territory for both of us. We both have had amazing accomplishments so we’ll be looking forward to the match and we’ll see what happens.”

Both are hoping they handle this new experience of qualifying for the year-end tournament with ease.

For Stephens, the biggest concern is adjusting to the unfamiliar round-robin format.

“I haven’t played a round-robin since I started playing tennis at Sierra Sport and Racquet Club, and you had to play the round robin to advance in your ladder,” Stephens said. “Yeah, I was, like, 10. So I’m really not sure how it works. But I think you just play and try to win and whatever happens happens.”

Osaka is hoping that just being part of the WTA Finals won’t give her the jitters.

“I hope I don’t get overwhelmed,” Osaka said. “You never really know how you’re gonna feel until you’re in that moment. So I can only hope that I’ll play well and I won’t get, like, nervous or anything, which I’m sure I will, but I feel like that’s all part of the process.”

The two join Angelique Kerber, the reigning Wimbledon champion, and Kiki Bertens, who qualified for the tournament when No. 1 Simona Halep withdrew with a herniated disc in her back, in the Red Group. Kerber and Bertens play Monday’s second scheduled match.

The competition gets under way with White Group action on Sunday.

Petra Kvitova, the 2011 WTA Finals champion, will play Elina Svitolina, who debuted here last year, in the opening match. Caroline Wozniacki, the defending champion, faces Karolina Pliskova, making a third consecutive appearance here, in the second match.

Despite not being able to play here, Halep is in Singapore and received the WTA Player of the Year award at the black-tie WTA Finals Gala on Friday night. The Romanian won her first Grand Slam title at this year’s French Open and was an Australian Open finalist.

“Winning a Grand Slam and finishing No. 1, I think it’s the most that I could ask for,” Halep said. “I had also tough moments, because Melbourne, it was really tough to get over and to come back stronger.

“I’m proud that I could come back stronger and I could make a better result. So I think definitely, actually, is the best year of my career.”

Zverev beats Djokovic to win ATP Finals title

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LONDON — Alexander Zverev upset Novak Djokovic to claim the biggest title of his career with a 6-4, 6-3 victory at the ATP Finals on Sunday.

The 21-year-old Zverev became the youngest champion of the season-ending event since Djokovic claimed the first of his five titles a decade ago, and the first from Germany since 1995.

Top-ranked Djokovic was attempting to tie Roger Federer’s record of six titles but followed the same path as the Swiss great, who lost to Zverev in the semifinals at the O2 Arena.

Djokovic’s serve hadn’t been broken all tournament until the final. Zverev did it once in the first set and three times in the second, completing the victory with a spectacular backhand winner up the line.

Both players began the match in the same form that had seen them earn straight-sets semifinal victories a day earlier, with few points going against the server.

It was Djokovic, who had lost just two of his previous 37 matches, who began to feel the pressure as consecutive forehand errors gave Zverev a chance to serve out the opening set at 5-4.

Fans gave Zverev a huge ovation as he stepped up to serve, and it appeared to inspire him. Three straight aces brought up three set points, the second of which he took when Djokovic sent another forehand long.

Zverev even began to outlast Djokovic in longer rallies, an area of the game the 14-time Grand Slam champion usually dominates. A 26-shot duel brought up another break point in the opening game of the second set and, although Djokovic saved it, Zverev won another lengthy exchange moments later with a forehand winner to go 1-0 up.

With the biggest win of his career in sight, Zverev began to show some nerves. Although he is the only active player outside of the Big Four of Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray to possess three or more Masters titles, the young German has only reached one Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Two double faults and two backhand errors gifted Djokovic an immediate break back, but Zverev quickly refocused to win a 28-shot rally on his way to breaking in the following game.

From there he remained solid on serve, before ending with a flourish. Having been pushed wide, a backhand winner on the run drifted past the helpless Djokovic.

Zverev sunk to the ground in tears as Djokovic sportingly crossed the net to embrace the player who will now be considered among the favorites to end the Serb’s run of two consecutive Grand Slam victories in Australia in two months’ time.

Earlier, American pair Mike Bryan and Jack Sock saved a match point in the deciding tiebreaker to beat Pierre-Hughes Herbert and Nicolas Mahut 5-7, 6-1, 13-11 for their first ATP Finals doubles title together.

Having failed to take advantage of five championship points during the first-to-10 match tiebreaker, Bryan and Sock then had to save one against their French opponents before finally closing out victory.

“It was a hell of a match,” Bryan said.

The 40-year-old Bryan has now won the tournament five times. He won four times with his usual partner – and brother – Bob, who has been out with an injured hip since May.

Sock and Bryan have dominated since teaming up, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open before finishing their season in style in London.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Bryan said. “This could be our last hoorah because Bob’s training back in Florida.”

Bryan, Sock win ATP Finals doubles title

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LONDON — American pair Mike Bryan and Jack Sock saved a match point in the deciding tiebreaker to beat Pierre-Hughes Herbert and Nicolas Mahut 5-7, 6-1, 13-11 for their first ATP Finals doubles title together on Sunday.

Having failed to take advantage of five championship points during the first-to-10 match tiebreaker, Bryan and Sock then had to save one against their French opponents before finally closing out victory at the O2 Arena.

“It was a hell of a match,” Bryan said.

The 40-year-old Bryan has now won the season-ending tournament five times. He won four times with his usual partner – and brother – Bob, who has been out with an injured hip since May.

Sock and Bryan have dominated since teaming up, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open before finishing their season in style in London.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Bryan said. “This could be our last hoorah because Bob’s training back in Florida.”

After reaching the singles semifinals last year, Sock has endured a torrid season in that format, falling outside the top-100 ranked players. However, he became the first American since John McEnroe to add a doubles final appearance at the tournament to his last-four singles showing.

“This is special because it was a pretty bad year in singles,” Sock said. “This makes up for some of the low moments I’ve had.”

The French duo’s season is not over yet. Herbert and Mahut are part of their nation’s squad for the Davis Cup final against Croatia, which starts in Lille on Friday.