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Nadal: Murray will be big loss, but game goes on

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal knew it was inevitable that sooner or later the Big Four would become the Big Three.

That Andy Murray is the first of the long-time leading four in men’s tennis to signal the end of his career is something Nadal has to keep in perspective.

The No. 2-ranked Nadal enters the Australian Open as a legitimate title contender along with No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic and No. 3-ranked Roger Federer, both six-time champions at Melbourne Park. Nadal is 32. Djokovic turns 32 in May, a week or so after Murray. Federer is 37.

Five-time finalist Murray plans to start the tournament in Australia, but he has conceded it could be his last after 20 months of struggling to overcome a long-time injury. The severe pain from his surgically repaired right hip is restricting his movement and he has already flagged he’ll retire after Wimbledon – if he can keep playing that long.

Murray practiced on Saturday at Melbourne Park not long before Nadal appeared at a news conference to talk about his health after three months out of competitive tennis and his prospects at the Australian Open, the only one of the four Grand Slam tournaments that he hasn’t won at least twice.

“Yeah, of course is very bad news,” Nadal said of Murray’s tearful news conference the previous day. “Will be a very important loss for us, for the world of tennis, for the tour, for the fans, even for the rivals that he have been part of a great rivalry between the best players for a long time, and a great competitor.

“But being honest, when somebody like him, that he achieved almost everything in his tennis career, is suffering like he’s doing for such a long time already … probably he does the right thing for his mental health.”

Nadal has missed long periods of tennis because of injuries throughout his career, still managing to amass 17 major titles, but has never contemplated a date for retirement.

“I didn’t arrive to that point. I am a positive guy. I always had the feeling that we’ll fix it,” he said. “But, of course, there is periods of time that you don’t see the light. Is tough.”

Federer has credited improvements in travel, in nutrition and in life balance for giving modern tennis players the ability to extend their careers well into their 30s. He was 35 and coming off a long injury layoff when he revived his career with an Australian Open title in 2017. He successfully defended the title last year, his 20th major.

Nadal’s plan for longevity revolves around playing fewer tournaments and resting whenever he has persistent injuries. That became less of an option for Murray, who is contemplating further surgery just to cut down on the pain he feels when he’s doing such simple things as putting on his shoes and socks.

“Seems like he had not very long career because today players are playing that long. But he’s 31 – 10 years ago, if he retired at 31, we will say he had a great and very long career,” Nadal said. “We will miss him. But today is him. Tomorrow another one. We are not 20 anymore. Our generation, everyone is more than 30s.”

The Big Four have dominated the men’s circuit for more than a decade and shared around the major titles with few exceptions, such as Stan Wawrinka’s wins at the 2014 Australian Open, the 2015 French and the 2016 U.S Open, and Marin Cilic’s victory at the 2014 U.S. Open.

There’s a crop of other players coming through, including No. 4-ranked Sasha Zverev, but much of the attention in the first the couple of days at Melbourne Park will be on Nadal, Murray and Djokovic – who went through juniors together – and Federer.

Nadal will open against Australian James Duckworth in the second match Monday on Rod Laver Arena. Federer has a night match against Denis Istomin on the same center court.

Murray is scheduled to play No. 22-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut on Monday at Melbourne Arena, the third of the show courts. Djokovic is on the other side of the draw and will start on Day 2.

Nadal recalled a younger Murray – “a little bit a bad boy” – in the under-13s and 14s, but was full of praise for how his Scottish friend had evolved.

“At the end of the day you appreciate a lot your rivals because you shared lot of important moments in our lives,” he said. “I always had good relationship with him. We shared courts in the most important stadiums in the world, competing for the most important things. That’s impossible to forget.”

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.”