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Australian Open: New rule nixes never-ending final sets

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Andy Roddick knows a thing or two about playing a tennis match that just won’t seem to end.

The Hall of Famer once won an Australian Open quarterfinal that ended 21-19 in the fifth set. He also lost a Wimbledon final against Roger Federer that went to 16-14 in the fifth set, a 2009 epic that Roddick says was “definitely the one I hear about the most and talk about the most and kind of think about the most.”

Those types of final sets are on the way out at Melbourne Park and the All England Club. The Australian Open and Wimbledon are finally doing what the U.S. Open started doing decades ago: putting an end to final sets before they get out of hand.

While some fans, and even players, might still like the idea that a match could go on and on and on forever – or seemingly forever – count Roddick among those who are just fine with the switch. One outcome is that each of the four Grand Slam tournaments now will resolve their lengthiest matches in a unique way, with the Australian Open – which begins Monday in Melbourne – the only one opting for a first-to-10, win-by-two tiebreaker at 6-all in a men’s fifth set or a women’s third set.

“You look back and everyone remembers those matches fondly, so I’m a little bit torn, but as a consumer of the sport, you have to know, at least within a semblance of a couple hours, how you’d even get through your day if you want to watch tennis,” Roddick said.

“Tennis is becoming more and more and more physical,” the 2003 U.S. Open champion said, “so I’ll miss the long matches, but I think it’s a positive change.”

Already a subject of debate after John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut in a 70-68 fifth set at Wimbledon in 2010, the issue reached a tipping point at the same tournament last year. Isner lost to Kevin Anderson in a 26-24 fifth set in the semifinals, pushing the conclusion of Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal into the following day and leaving Anderson compromised for the final.

“What John and Kevin did was amazing, but it was also impossible for a viewer to watch. … It put the tournament into a real tough spot with Novak and Rafa not being able to finish that day,” Roddick said. “It causes a whole lot of problems.”

Not surprisingly, Isner and Anderson both appreciated the adjustment.

“If they could name it, they probably would name it after me,” Isner joked about the new rule at Wimbledon, which calls for a first-to-seven, win-by-two traditional tiebreaker if a final set reaches 12-all, instead of the standard 6-all. “I personally do think it’s the right call. Chances are, it will not come into play next year for me – we do know it’s a possibility – or for anyone else. … When that does happen, I think it’ll be interesting to see how fans react.”

Also worth watching is how the differences in each major’s setups are viewed.

The U.S. Open is sticking with its first-to-seven, win-by-two tiebreaker at 6-all, which was introduced in the 1970s.

The French Open, meanwhile, is now the only Grand Slam tournament to continue to eschew final-set tiebreakers entirely and make players continue to compete until someone wins by two games.

“Ultimately, it’s a balancing act between elevating the uniqueness of each event, versus compromising on the uniformity of rules and potential clarity for fans,” ATP Chief Executive Chris Kermode said.

His counterpart at the WTA, CEO Steve Simon, would prefer more consistency across the Slams, but he likes the idea of reducing final sets, because, “I don’t think that matches that go extraordinarily long are healthy for the sport.”

The old setup at the Australian Open and Wimbledon created problems for athletes, without a doubt. And some spectators, whether in the stadium or at home on a couch, surely wished they could have fast-forwarded to the finish.

Simon is among those who think there still will be room for plenty of drama.

“For the fans, they’ve already watched five hours of tennis, so they don’t want to sit through another, potentially, hour or two hours. They want to see an ending. And they want it to be exciting, you know?” said Denis Shapovalov, a 19-year-old Canadian seeded 25th in Melbourne. “When you saw Isner and Anderson, I just felt awful for them. It’s not even tennis anymore. It’s just who can survive the longest. And even if they win, the next round, there’s no chance.”

Azarenka wins first match at new Miami Open site

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Victoria Azarenka won the first match on the stadium court at the new site of the Miami Open by beating Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.

The unseeded Azarenka is a three-time Miami Open champion.

After a one-day delay because of rain, the tournament started Wednesday at the Miami Dolphins’ complex. The 13,800-seat stadium was mostly empty for the opening match, but bigger crowds are expected when seeded players begin taking the court. They have first-round byes.

Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony before the first stadium match.

“Standing here in this stadium right now, you see the magnitude, what kind of an arena this is,” Federer said. “I think it’s a big, massive moment in our sport.”

Thiem edges Federer to win Indian Wells title

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Dominic Thiem edged error-prone Roger Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to win the BNP Paribas Open on Sunday, denying Federer a record sixth title in the desert.

Thiem trailed 4-3 and 5-4 in the third set before breaking Federer with a forehand winner to go up 6-5. Thiem served out the two-hour match that ended with another error from Federer, a forehand dumped into the net.

Federer was in the final for the third straight year and lost for the second year in a row. He was beaten in a third-set tiebreaker by Juan Martin del Potro last year. Federer won his 100th career title in Dubai recently.

Thiem had lost in his previous two ATP Masters 1000 finals. But the 25-year-old Austrian’s solid serve held up against Federer as it had throughout the tournament.

Thiem was broken just four times out of 61 service games in the tournament. He didn’t lose serve during his semifinal win over Milos Raonic, facing only one break point in that match.

Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu upset Angelique Kerber 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 to win the women’s title.

Thiem and Andreescu earned $1.3 million each.

Federer and Thiem had split their four previous meetings, but Federer had won both of their hard-court matches without dropping a set.

He cruised through the first set in 36 minutes while getting broken for just the second time during his run to his ninth appearance in the final. But Federer broke back in the next game and served out the set.

Thiem earned the only break of the second set in the fourth game, going up 3-1. Federer won just two more games in the set.

Both players were on serve in the third set until Thiem collected the only break. Federer tried consecutive drop shots that Thiem retrieved for crosscourt forehand winners before the Austrian hit a winning forehand to lead 6-5.

“He did very well when he got up to the ball, stayed calm, made the shot,” Federer said.

Federer won just one point on Thiem’s serve in the final game.

“Just came up against somebody who was on the day a bit better when it really mattered,” Federer said. “I have been in these positions so many times that I get over it very quickly.”

Federer advanced to the final after rival Rafael Nadal withdrew before their semifinal match because of knee pain. Thiem also benefited from a walkover, reaching the semis when Gael Monfils withdrew with an Achilles injury.

Andreescu, an 18-year-old Canadian, became the first wild-card winner and second-youngest to claim the title in tournament history.

“The fricking champion of Indian Wells,” Andreescu said. “It’s crazy.”

She overcame nerves, fatigue, arm and leg issues in the final set to earn the first title of her fledgling career.

Andreescu won on her fourth match point when Kerber netted a backhand. She broke Kerber three times in the third set, rallying from a 3-2 deficit to take four of the final five games.

Andreescu dropped her racket near the baseline and fell on her back, her legs in the air as she covered her face in disbelief. After getting up and exchanging kisses with Kerber, the teen bent down and kissed the sunbaked hard court and dropped to her back again, her arms and legs splayed, before grabbing her head.

“This moment has become a reality so it’s really, really crazy,” Andreescu told the crowd before speaking a bit of Romanian.

Born in Canada, she later moved with her parents to Romania, where she first started playing tennis.

Kerber was the last of five seeded players that Andreescu knocked off in her seven matches.

“When she had the chances, she just go for it,” Kerber said.

The Canadian followed in the footsteps of Naomi Osaka, who was a little-known 20-year-old when she won the title last year. Osaka used it as a springboard to win titles at the U.S. and Australian opens while ascending to the No. 1 ranking in January.

“No pressure,” Andreescu said, joking.

She’s projected to rise 36 spots to No. 24 in the WTA Tour rankings on Monday.

Kerber, ranked eighth, remains without a title since winning Wimbledon last year.

She was a crowd favorite, with fans waving Canadian flags and chanting “Let’s go, Bianca! Let’s go” in the second set.

They clearly enjoyed Andreescu’s fearless style of play. She alternately outpunched opponents from the baseline, tossed up high-arching shots and unleashed well-time drop shots – usually during the same point.

A smiling Andreescu was quick to correct a reporter.

“It’s not moonballing,” she said. “It’s just hitting heavy to her backhand with more spin. We’re not under 12 here.”

Her most dominant win during the 12-day tournament came in the quarterfinals, a 6-0, 6-1 rout of two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza. In all, the teen knocked out four Top 20 players.

Leading 2-1 in the third, Andreescu took a medical timeout and had a trainer massage her tight right shoulder and arm.

Kerber won the next two games, breaking Andreescu to go up 3-2.

Appearing tired and nervous, Andreescu called for her coach, who urged her to make Kerber play every point.

She did just that.

Andreescu won the next three games, ripping off powerful forehands while winning nine straight points during one stretch, including a 40-love service game.

“I just fought till the end because physically I wasn’t feeling too well,” she said.

The trainer reappeared again to ice Andreescu’s cramping legs.

The teen had three match points on her serve before trying one of her patented drop shots. Kerber raced to get it and sent a forehand down the line to get to deuce.

The German led 40-add on Andreescu’s forehand error before the teen made a low-percentage attempt at a drop shot. It landed in the net, leaving Kerber trailing 5-4.

“At the end I was not able to take my chances, but she did,” Kerber said.

Andreescu bounced back, putting away a smash to set up her fourth match point before Kerber’s backhand error ended it after 2 hours and 18 minutes.