Isner upset by Opelka in four tiebreakers at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — It was a bit as if John Isner was looking at a mirror-image across the net at the Australian Open on Monday, facing that rare guy who’s actually a tad taller than he is and can smack serves nearly as well.

And so it was that, even though he hit more aces than his opponent, 47-40, delivered more total winners, 79-64, and finished with more overall points, 147-142, Isner – for the first time in his career – failed to beat an American foe at a Grand Slam tournament.

Reilly Opelka, ranked just 97th, earned his first victory in a main-draw match at any of the majors by edging the No. 9-seeded Isner in four tiebreakers 7-6 (4), 7-6 (6), 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5).

“There’s just a lot of things that are out of your control. That’s something I can relate to. I feel like when I’m playing well, that’s how my opponents think. And I was expecting that today; that I probably wouldn’t get to touch too many balls, too many serves, but I was hoping the same for him,” said Opelka, a 21-year-old who is based in Florida. “I know it’s awkward for both of us.”

The 33-year-old Isner was a semifinalist at Wimbledon last year and entered the day with a 9-0 record in all-U.S. contests at the Slams.

But he does not often go up against someone with a similar profile: At 6-foot-11 (2.11 meters), Opelka is an inch (3 centimeters) taller than Isner.

“It’s been helpful watching him, but at the same time, we’re different. There are similarities, but the ball comes back a lot more for me than it will for him,” Opelka said. “At least for now.”

Because he’s a dozen years younger, and they’re from the same country, Opelka said about Isner: “Of course I looked up to him. He’s been top 15, top 20 in the world for a crazy long amount of time now.”

Still, Opelka hardly was prepared to declare this outcome any sort of breakthrough. He figures he still has plenty to work on.

Instead, he viewed it as a vehicle to help avoid returning to tennis’ lower levels, such as the ITF Transition Tour, where Opelka recalled one tournament this way: “Didn’t have any balls. Didn’t have any courts. Didn’t have any water.”

There were two moments Monday that both men knew helped determine the outcome.

In the second tiebreaker, Isner went ahead 6-4 and served to even the match at a set apiece. But Opelka produced a forehand passing winner to erase the initial set point, opening a four-point run that included a pair of aces and a backhand pass to take that set.

Then Isner went up a break in the fourth set and served to force a fifth while ahead 5-4. Up until then, Opelka had not managed to break Isner’s serve.

“I was ready to play a fifth,” Opelka said. “That’s kind of what I was thinking. … I got lucky to get a break.”

Maybe that’s a fair characterization. Isner did help out, missing one backhand followed by a trio of forehands.

“I held serve the whole match, pretty comfortably. Kind of was uncharacteristic,” Isner said of that one lost service game.

Opelka took the eventual – inevitable? – tiebreaker with the help of three aces, including one at 227 kph (141 mph) to close out the match.

For Isner, it’s the second year in a row that he bowed out in the opening round in Australia.

In 2018, he began the season with six consecutive losses before turning things around and finishing with two titles and a pair of quarterfinals-or-better showings at majors.

“I was 0-6 last year. I’m on my way to 0-6, so we’ll see if I can top that. I’m 0-2 right now,” said Isner, who lost his first match at Auckland, New Zealand, last week.

“Only thing I can do,” he said, “is just keep working.”

Top-seeded Sakkari reaches semifinals at Parma Ladies Open

Maria Sakkari
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PARMA, Italy — Top-seeded Maria Sakkari rallied past 97th-ranked Maryna Zanevska 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 on Thursday at the Parma Ladies Open to reach her first semifinal since the grass-court season.

Sakkari, who has gone three sets in all three of her matches this week, will face Danka Kovinic for a spot in the final of the clay-court event after Kovinic beat Jasmine Paolini 6-4, 6-4.

In her previous semifinal, Sakkari lost to Belinda Bencic in Berlin in June. The seventh-ranked Greek player was eliminated by Wang Xiyu in the second round of the U.S. Open on Aug. 31.

In the bottom half of the draw, Mayar Sherif of Egypt beat American opponent Lauren Davis 7-6 (2), 6-3 to reach her second career semifinal. Sherif next faces Ana Bogdan, who defeated fellow Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu 6-2, 7-6 (6).

Sakkari through to Parma Open quarterfinals; Stephens loses

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PARMA, Italy — Top-seeded Maria Sakkari rallied past Arantxa Rus 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 to reach the quarterfinals of the Parma Ladies Open.

Sakkari, who accepted a late wild card to the red clay court tournament, was playing her first event since losing to Wang Xiyu in the second round of the U.S. Open.

The Greek player will next face Maryna Zanevska of Belgium after she eased past Dalma Galfi 6-1, 6-3.

Fourth-seeded Sloane Stephens of the United States, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, lost to Danka Kovinic 7-5, 2-6, 7-5.

Kovinic will face Jasmine Paolini in the quarterfinals after the Italian defeated compatriot Elisabetta Cocciaretto 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

There will be an American in the final eight, however, as Lauren Davis rallied to beat Sara Sorribes Tormo 3-6, 6-4, 7-5. Sorribes Tormo had eliminated second-seeded Martina Trevisan in straight sets in the opening round.

Davis will play Mayar Sherif after the Egyptian player defeated Simona Waltert 6-3, 7-6 (1).

Also, third-seeded Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania eased past Italian wild card Matilde Paoletti 6-4, 6-4 to set up a quarterfinal against sixth-seeded Ana Bogdan, who beat Anna Karolina Schmiedlova 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.