Osaka, Nishikori into Birsbane semifinals

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BRISBANE, Australia — Naomi Osaka called in her coach for advice on how to swing momentum after losing the first set to Anastasija Sevastova, and it did the trick.

The U.S. Open champion responded by conceding only five points in the next set on her way to a 3-6, 6-0, 6-4 win Thursday that secured her spot in the Brisbane International semifinals.

Kei Nishikori worked his own way out of a jam against 2017 champion Grigor Dimitrov when he was down a break in the second set of their quarterfinal match, winning six of the last seven games to clinch it 7-5, 7-5.

And so after the back-to-back matches on Pat Rafter Arena, two players from Japan, both seeded No. 2, were into the semifinals.

Osaka was clearly under pressure against the eighth-seeded Sevastova, who had won both of their head-to-head meetings last year and converted two service breaks in the first set.

A disconsolate-looking Osaka went to a courtside chair at the changeover. And whatever coach Sascha Bajin told her during a quick, animated conference, it worked.

She finished with 11 aces, converted all four of her break-point chances in the second and third sets and appeared far more confident in her own game.

Bajin, a former hitting partner for Serena Williams, really just gave her a reality check. He told Osaka to stay calm and wait for her opportunities.

“She’s one of the best players in the world. I just have to stay in there, and hopefully I’ll get a chance,”‘ Osaka said. “I did, so I just kept trying to roll with it. He literally told me that.”

On-court coaching is allowed at WTA events, but it is banned at Grand Slam tournaments.

The 21-year-old Osaka will play Lesia Tsurenko, a 7-5, 6-3 winner over Anett Kontaveit, in the semifinals. She could rise to No. 3 in the rankings next week – which would be a record high for a player from Japan.

Osaka has now made the semifinals or better at four of her last five tournaments, a streak that began with her run to a first major title that culminated with a memorable win over Williams in the U.S. Open final. And it has all been a significant boost to her confidence ahead of the Australian Open, which starts on Jan. 14.

“I feel like right now I’m really confident in myself, and I feel like the offseason training that I’ve been doing is really paying off,” she said. “And I’m not sure if I would have had the same feeling six months ago. Six months ago I didn’t win the U.S. Open.”

Nishikori, who became the highest-ranked male player from Asia when he got to No. 4 in the wake of his run to the U.S. Open final in 2014, lost the 2017 Brisbane final to Dimitrov. That is so far a one-off, with Nishikori now extending his career record to 5-1 against the Bulgarian.

“I’m trying to go (back into) top five, that’s my next goal,” Nishikori said. “I was playing great tennis (last year) and I think I’m doing it again now this week.”

He will next play Jeremy Chardy, who beat Japanese qualifier Yasutaka Uchiyama 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (4) to reach the semifinals.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga got an easier path to the quarterfinals than expected, avoiding a second-round contest with 17-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, who withdrew from the tournament with a thigh muscle strain on Wednesday.

Tsonga then beat Taro Daniel 7-6 (5), 6-3. The 77th-ranked Daniel was the lucky loser from qualifying who got a spot in the main draw when Nadal pulled out.

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

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LONDON – Former top-10 player Fernando Verdasco accepted a voluntary provisional doping suspension of two months after testing positive for a medication for ADHD, the International Tennis Integrity Agency announced.

Verdasco, who turned 39 this month, said he was taking methylphenidate as medication prescribed by his doctor to treat ADHD but forgot to renew his therapeutic use exemption for the drug. The integrity agency said Verdasco has now been granted an exemption by the World Anti-Doping Agency moving forward.

He tested positive at an ATP Challenger tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in February.

The integrity agency said in a news release that it “accepts that the player did not intend to cheat, that his violation was inadvertent and unintentional, and that he bears no significant fault or negligence for it,” and so what could have been a two-year suspension was reduced to two months.

Verdasco will be eligible to compete on Jan. 8.

The Spaniard is a four-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, reaching that stage most recently in 2013 at Wimbledon, where he blew a two-set lead in a five-set loss to eventual champion Andy Murray.

Verdasco reached a career-best ranking of No. 7 in April 2009 and currently is No. 125.

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports
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MALAGA, Spain — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him.

A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup.

“I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Canada won the title for the first time, beating Australia behind victories from Denis Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime secured the winning point when he downed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4 after Shapovalov opened the day by rolling past Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.

Seven years after leading Canada to the top of junior tennis, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and their teammates finally got to lift the biggest team trophy in their sport.

“We wanted to grow up and be part of the team and try to help the country win the first title,” Shapovalov said, “so everything is just so surreal right now.”

Shapovalov had dropped both his singles matches this week and needed treatment on his back during a three-set loss in the semifinals to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy that lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. But the left-hander moved quickly around the court, setting up angles to put away winners while racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set.

Auger-Aliassime then finished off his superb second half of the season by completing a perfect week in Spain. He twice had kept the Canadians alive after Shapovalov dropped the opening singles match, and he replaced his weary teammate to join Vasek Pospisil for the decisive doubles point.

This time, Auger-Aliassime made sure the doubles match wouldn’t even be necessary. After his teammates poured onto the court to celebrate with him, they got up and danced around in a circle.

Canada had reached the final only once, falling to host Spain in Madrid in 2019, when Rafael Nadal beat Shapovalov for the clinching point after Auger-Aliassime had lost in the opening match.

But with Auger-Aliassime having since surged up the rankings to his current spot at No. 6, the Canadians are a much more formidable team now. They won the ATP Cup in January and finally added the Davis Cup crown to the junior Davis Cup title Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led them to in 2015.

Australia was trying for its 29th title and first since current captain Lleyton Hewitt was part of the title-winning team in 2003.

But it was finally time for the Canadians, who were given a wild card into the field when Russia was suspended because of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Look, I think we were very close today,” de Minaur said. “Just wait until the next time we get the same matchup. Hopefully we can get the win and prove that we can do it.”

But Canada will be tough to beat as long as Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov play.

Shapovalov is just 23 and Auger-Aliassime 22, but both already have been Grand Slam semifinalists and Auger-Aliassime ended 2022 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour. He won all of his four titles this year, including three straight weeks in October.

He also beat Carlos Alcaraz in the previous Davis Cup stage in September, just after the Spaniard had won the U.S. Open to rise to No. 1 in the rankings. That victory helped send the Canadians into the quarterfinals, which they started this week by edging Germany.

“They’re not kids anymore, that’s for sure. Not after today – well not after the last couple of years,” said Pospisil, the team veteran at 32. “They’ve been crushing it.”