Kei Nishikori advances in five sets at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Kei Nishikori wants to extend a Grand Slam sequence. He’s not making it easy at the Australian Open.

Eighth-seeded Nishikori withstood 59 aces from Ivo Karlovic, and had to save three break points deep in the fifth, before beating the 39-year-old Croatian 6-3, 7-6 (6), 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 (7) to reach the third round.

After missing last year’s Australian Open because of injury, Nishikori reached the fourth round at the French Open, the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the semifinals in New York, losing to eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the last two.

He reached a career-high No. 4 ranking in March, 2015 – a record for an Asian player in ATP rankings history – and his runner-up finish at the 2014 U.S. Open made him the first man from Asia to reach a Grand Slam final.

Already with a title in Brisbane to open 2019, he’s starting to believe he’s ready for the next step.

But after twice being taken to five sets – he lost the first two sets of his opening match but won 15 of the next 17 games before Kamil Majchrzak retired while trailing 3-0 in the fifth – he’d prefer to take a direct route through the third round. He next plays Joao Sousa, who beat No. 32 Philipp Kohlschreiber 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4.

“I rather do three sets, but today (Karlovic) was playing well, and first match, too, the guy was playing really solid,” Nishikori said. “Yeah, these two matches can go, you know, I could lose these two matches. So I just need to recover well. But, I mean, it’s only two matches, so I’m not too tired yet.”

Nishikori dropped to his hands and knees after winning the last three points of the tiebreaker, relieved to secure his spot.

He later joked that he’d faced more aces in one match than he himself would serve in a year.

“He almost had it,” Nishikori said of how close Karlovic got to victory. “One serve and it could have gone his way.”

To force a fifth, Karlovic, who is 2.11 meters (6-feet-11), had served six aces in a row – two from 30-30 in the 10th game and then another four to close after breaking Nishikori’s serve to close out the fourth set.

“Never easy. Kind of frustrating if you can’t get the serve like three in a row.”

After trailing 4-1 in the 10-point tiebreaker – a new addition at the Australian Open this year — and then taking a 7-6 lead thanks to a video replay review at 6-6 – Karlovic was closing in becoming the oldest man since Ken Rosewall in 1978 to reach the third round at the Australian Open.

But Nishikori stepped it up, sparking chants of “Nishi-kori, Nishi-kori” from a section of Japanese fans at Margaret Court Arena.

“I had to reload in the fifth,” he said. “It was really tough. Could go both ways. I really returned well – focussed well.

“We both played great tennis – and he served really well. I’ll try to carry on this confidence to the next round.”

Rain showers halted play on all courts soon after Nishikori’s win, forcing organizers to close the roofs of the three main show courts.

The Japanese fans were still in place after the break to watch U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka advance with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Tamara Zidansek.

Nishikori said having more Japanese fans in Australia than at any of the other majors always gave him a boost.

“You can tell there is so many Japanese. And also many Asians. I’m sure I feel more comfortable playing this Grand Slam than other Grand Slam.”

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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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.”