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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.”

Collins stuns Kerber at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Anyone unfamiliar with Danielle Collins – and that could be forgiven, really, considering her 0-5 mark at majors until this Australian Open – got a sense of what she’s all about during her surprisingly easy upset of former No. 1 Angelique Kerber.

Not just the 6-0, 6-2 scoreline Sunday that eliminated a three-time Grand Slam champion and put the unseeded Collins in the quarterfinals.

And not just the take-balls-early aggressive approach that produced a “Did I read that right?!” edge of 29-6 in total winners for Collins, a 25-year-old American who won a pair of NCAA singles titles at the University of Virginia.

But, instead, let’s focus on this little detail: On the second set’s second point, Kerber hit a forehand winner that she punctuated with a relatively innocuous “Come on!” that caught Collins’ attention. So after claiming the following point with a drop shot, Collins stared down Kerber, leaned forward, shook a fist and screamed those same two words – except with a lot more oomph, stretching out the second syllable as if it were spelled with about a dozen O’s.

“I’m my own person. I’m feisty. I love making it kind of a war. If somebody wants to get in my face on my unforced errors, I have no problem getting right back at them and making it a feisty match,” said Collins, who knocked off No. 14 seed Julia Goerges in the first round and No. 19 Caroline Garcia in the third before taking care of No. 2 Kerber in the fourth.

“I love that. Embrace it,” Collins continued with a laugh. “I love when things get competitive.”

Her coach, Mat Cloer, confirmed that attitude extends to practice sessions, saying he’ll hear from Collins during drills: “You missed before me.”

Referring to Sunday’s victory, Cloer said: “She was a little fiery at Angie, but I think that allowed her to say: `You know what? I’m still here and I’m going to fight this through.”‘

Next up for the 35th-ranked Collins on Tuesday will be Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who reached her fifth Grand Slam quarterfinal by coming back to beat 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-3 in a match that ended at nearly 2 a.m.

The other quarterfinal on that side of the draw will be two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova against No. 15 Ash Barty, the first Australian woman to get this far at her country’s Slam since Jelena Dokic a decade ago.

Barty took advantage of Maria Sharapova’s 10 double-faults to beat the five-time major champion 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, while Kvitova eliminated 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova of the U.S. 6-2, 6-1.

Nothing was quite as impressive as the way Collins made Kerber look rather ordinary.

“Not too much to say,” said Kerber, who defeated Serena Williams in the 2016 Australian Open final. “I mean, it was completely not my day.”

Collins had a lot to do with that, to be sure.

She is supremely self-confident away from a tennis court – and on one, too, especially lately.

“From the very first point, I showed her that I wasn’t going to let her into the match, that I was going to dictate the entire way through,” said Collins, who had lost her only previous match against Kerber 6-1, 6-1, but that was on grass, not the sort of hard court used at Melbourne Park. “I stuck to my game plan. It clearly worked out well for me. Pretty much smooth sailing throughout the entire thing.”

Federer shocked by Tsitsipas at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Even as his uninterrupted dominance of yore dissipated, even as he took the occasional break, Roger Federer always mattered more often than not in the closing days of Grand Slam tournaments.

Until lately, that is.

Until, at age 37, he was outplayed in the Australian Open’s fourth round by a much younger man, 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, during a 6-7 (11), 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (5) surprise that ended Federer’s bid for a third consecutive championship at Melbourne Park.

“I have massive regrets,” said Federer, who failed to convert any of the 12 break points he earned against Tsitsipas, the first player from Greece to reach a major quarterfinal.

This loss makes it a fourth straight Slam without Federer in the semifinals: He skipped the 2018 French Open, was beaten at Wimbledon in the quarterfinals and exited the U.S. Open in the fourth round.

That is his longest such drought since he claimed the first of his men’s record 20 major titles, all the way back in 2003 at Wimbledon.

“Roger is a legend of our sport. So much respect for him. He showed such good tennis over the years. I’ve been idolizing him since the age of 6,” said Tsitsipas, who has worked with Serena Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.

“It was a dream come true for me … just facing him,” Tsitsipas said about Federer. “Winning at the end? I cannot describe it, you know.”

Federer was the oldest man left in the field and would have been the oldest quarterfinalist in Australia since Ken Rosewall at 43 in 1977.

Tsitsipas, a lanky guy who kept his scraggly hair in place with a pink headband, was the youngest to make the fourth round this year. He lost his opening match in Melbourne a year ago, when Federer picked up his sixth Australian Open championship.

“For sure, it’s a good win against Roger. I mean, we all know who Roger Federer is, what he has done in tennis. But I still have to keep my focus, keep my concentration on further goals that I want to achieve. That’s a very good beginning. I need to stay humble,” said Tsitsipas, who next faces another player making his quarterfinal debut at a major, No. 22 Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain. “This win is a good milestone, let’s say good first step, as I said, to something bigger.”

At least Federer was able to crack a joke when asked whether Tsitsipas reminds him of a younger version of himself, replying: “He has a one-handed backhand. And I used to have long hair, too.”

And before anyone writes off Federer just yet, remember that folks have kept trying to do that for quite some time, and he has repeatedly returned to title-winning form. After this setback, Federer announced that he would return to playing the clay-court circuit this season, including the French Open after missing it the past three years.

This match was a thriller from beginning to end, both in terms of the high quality and entertaining style of play from both men – something long expected of Federer. The world is still learning what the 14th-seeded Tsitsipas can do.

His soft hands serve him well on volleys, and he is that rare man who will press forward as often as Federer and have nearly as much success. On this cool evening, Tsitsipas won the point on 48 of 68 trips to the net, while Federer went 50 for 66.

The kid served well, too, compiling a 20-12 edge in aces and, more significantly, staving off all of those break chances that Federer earned: two in the first set, eight in the second, two in the third.

In the opening game of the match, Tsitsipas twice was called for a time violation after allowing the 25-second serve clock – new in Melbourne’s main draw this year – to expire. The second such warning resulted in the loss of a serve, and Tsitsipas proceeded to double-fault, offering up a break point to Federer.

Tsisipas erased that chance with a 123 mph (198 kph) serve initially called out, then reversed on a challenge. Federer insisted to chair umpire James Keothavong that they should replay the point, a request that was denied, drawing the Swiss star’s ire.

That would signal a pattern. At each key juncture, either Federer blinked or Tsitsipas delivered something special.

“Hung in there, gave himself chances at some points, stayed calm. It’s not always easy, especially for younger guys,” said Federer, who was trying to reach his 54th Grand Slam quarterfinal. “Credit to him for taking care of that.”

Tsitsipas never even collected a break point of his own until the third set, and the match was nearly 3 hours old when he finally cashed one in, the only one he would need, when Federer pushed a forehand into the net.

The crowd, sensing something special, broke into a chorus of “Tsi-tsi-pas! Tsi-tsi-pas!”

As is often the case when a youngster outdoes an old master, there was buzz about whether this might signal something more meaningful than one result. Each member of the sport’s long-ruling Big Three – Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – already had dismissed challenges from the next generation at this tournament.

This, though, was different.

Tsitsipas is different.

“I see him being high up in the game,” Federer said, “for a long time.”