AP Photo

No. 1 Djokovic to face No. 2 Nadal for Australian Open title

1 Comment

MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic was about as perfect as can be in his semifinal at Rod Laver Arena. Didn’t miss much. Almost couldn’t, really.

It was a performance so flawless, so fantastic, that it was easy to feel as if only one man on the planet might have a chance of preventing Djokovic from claiming a record seventh Australian Open title: Rafael Nadal. As it happens, that is who he’ll face in Sunday’s final.

Djokovic never relented, not for a moment, while making an unheard-of total of five unforced errors against an overmatched Lucas Pouille en route to a 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 semifinal victory that lasted less than 1½ hours.

“I guess you’re driven by some force that takes over you, and you feel divine. You feel like in a different dimension,” Djokovic said. “It’s quite an awesome feeling that we all try to reach and stay in. Probably the biggest challenge, I think, is how to repeat that, how to stay there for as long as you possibly can.”

This was as good as he gets. As good as it gets.

“When he’s playing like this,” the 28th-seeded Pouille said, “yeah, he’s the best in the world, for sure.”

Now Djokovic will line up against his old rival, Nadal, for the 53rd time on tour, eighth in a Grand Slam final.

It will be the No. 1-ranked Djokovic — owner of 14 Grand Slam titles, including the past two — against No. 2 Nadal, who’s won 17 majors. Roger Federer, with 20, is the only man whose total is higher.

“I would definitely want to buy a ticket,” Djokovic told the crowd.

He holds a 27-25 edge over Nadal in their head-to-head series; Nadal leads 4-3 in Slam finals. The only other time they met with the Australian Open trophy on the line, in 2012, Djokovic won 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in 5 hours, 53 minutes, making it the longest Grand Slam title match in history.

“Once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Djokovic called that one, “and hopefully the outcome can be the same for me.”

Given how well both men are playing at the moment, this showdown shapes up as another potential classic.

“Rafa,” Pouille said, “looks pretty amazing, too.”

Indeed, Nadal was superb while beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 on Thursday night and has yet to drop a set in the tournament as he seeks his second title in Melbourne.

A day later, Djokovic played as if setting out to say, “Anything you can do, I can do better.”

This was Djokovic’s 34th Grand Slam semifinal and he’s now won his last 10. Pouille, a 24-year-old Frenchman coached by former women’s No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo, was making his debut at this stage.

The plan, Pouille explained afterward, was to try to be the aggressor and take charge of points.

So much for that.

“I was trying to find a solution, but couldn’t find any,” Pouille said. “I couldn’t put a strategy in place.”

The wide gulf in experience and accomplishments showed on a cloudy, breezy evening as Djokovic improved to 7-0 in semifinals at Melbourne Park.

He is also unbeaten so far in Australian Open finals, sharing the men’s mark of six titles with Roy Emerson and Federer.

“Everything worked the way I imagined it before the match,” Djokovic said. “And even more so.”

Other than one face-down pratfall he took when he slipped while trying to change direction, what didn’t go right for Djokovic on Friday?

He won 25 of 34 points on Pouille’s second serve and broke the guy seven times.

He won 45 of 53 points he served, never facing a single break chance.

Even managed to deliver a second-serve ace.

That he made so few mistakes while taking enough risk to accumulate 24 winners was remarkable.

It took Pouille more than a half-hour to merely grab one game, and spectators roared, likely relieved at the prospect of a more competitive, not to mention longer, match.

Never materialized.

It’s a far cry from the 2018 Australian Open, when Djokovic lost in the fourth round while dealing with pain in his right elbow.

Soon after, he had surgery. Then began the climb back to the top.

“It was highly unlikely 12 months ago that I would be where I am today, a year later,” Djokovic said. “I’ve said it before, but I always have plenty of belief in myself, and the self-belief always prevails.”

Back on top: Nadal beats Djokovic for 9th Italian Open title

Getty Images
Leave a comment

ROME (AP) Rafael Nadal is right back where he wants to be.

After losing in the semifinals of three straight clay-court tournaments, Nadal dominated for stretches against his longtime rival, Novak Djokovic, in a 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 win Sunday for a record-extending ninth Italian Open title.

It marked the first time in an Open Era-record 54 meetings, and in their 142nd set against each other, that Nadal won a set against Djokovic without conceding a game – otherwise known as a bagel.

The timing for Nadal’s return to form could not have been more opportune, as he will seek a record-extending 12th title at the French Open starting next weekend.

“Winning a title is important but for me the most important thing is feel myself competitive, feel myself healthy,” Nadal said. “Then with the feeling that I am improving. I know if I’m able to reach my level you can win, you can lose, but normally I’m going to have my chances, especially on this surface.”

Top-ranked Djokovic, meanwhile, appeared exhausted after spending more than 5 1/2 hours on court against Juan Martin del Potro and Diego Schwartzman the previous two days.

Djokovic was also coming off the Madrid Open title last week.

“I don’t want to talk about fatigue or things like that,” Djokovic said. “Rafa was simply too strong today.”

In the women’s final earlier, Karolina Pliskova captured the biggest clay-court trophy of her career by beating Johanna Konta 6-3, 6-4.

The Foro Italico crowd continually tried to encourage Djokovic with chants of “Vai Nole!” – Go Nole! – but the top-ranked Serb struggled with his overhead and drop shots.

Midway through the second set, Nadal chased down a lob with an over-the-shoulder shot and Djokovic’s ensuing overhead landed in the net to conclude a long point.

Djokovic again netted an overhead in the next game and then kicked the ball in frustration when he missed a drop shot attempt late in the second.

But Djokovic hung around in the second and converted his first set point when a looping forehand from Nadal sailed wide for his first break of the match. As he walked to his chair after winning the second set, Djokovic waved his arms to get the crowd behind him.

However, Djokovic didn’t have much left in the tank.

When Nadal pushed Djokovic deep into the corner in the opening game of the third set and Djokovic’s desperation lob sailed long to hand Nadal a break, Djokovic smashed his racket to the clay three times in frustration and received a warning from the chair umpire.

Djokovic won only 29 percent of the points on his second serve and committed 39 unforced errors to Nadal’s 17. Also, Nadal won 23 of the 31 rallies with nine or more shots.

PLISKOVA NO. 2

Pliskova’s victory will move her up to No. 2 in the rankings and makes her one of the contenders for Roland Garros.

“I just hope to take the tennis I was playing here to Paris,” Pliskova said. “For sure there’s going to be a chance for me if I play this way.”

The 2016 U.S. Open runner-up, Pliskova also reached the Australian Open semifinals and the Miami Open final after opening this season with a title in Brisbane, Australia. But she lost in the second round of her previous two tournaments on clay in Stuttgart, Germany, and Madrid.

“Nobody really gave me chance for this tournament – even me,” Pliskova said. “Before the tournament, I was not super confident, not thinking about the final at all. I was just happy with every match which I played. So it’s little bit like a miracle for me.”

The unseeded Konta appeared nervous at the start, double faulting then landing a backhand into the net to hand Pliskova a break in her opening service game.

In the second set, Pliskova used a swinging forehand volley putaway to break for a 4-3 lead and never looked back.

“It’s always tough playing Karolina,” Konta said. “There’s rarely really a rhythm to the match. She plays with big shots, quite flat, and big serves. It can feel sometimes you’re fighting an uphill battle. That was the case today.”

After converting her third championship point, Pliskova went over and slapped hands with Conchita Martinez, the four-time Rome champion who she recently named her head coach. Pliskova then asked Martinez and the rest of her team to come down onto the court for her victory celebration.

“She loved clay so she knows exactly what I should do,” Pliskova said of Martinez. “There were small differences: movement, maybe to put more topspin on the balls, use drop shots – which I never use, but I start little bit, and to mix also the serves. … I know she loved this tournament. I think she prayed so I could win today.”

Nadal gets his revenge over Tsitsipas to reach Rome final

AP Photo
Leave a comment

ROME (AP) After losing in the semifinals of three straight clay-court tournaments, Rafael Nadal looked more like his old, dominant self when he beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-4 Saturday to reach the Italian Open final.

It was a measure of revenge for Nadal after losing to Tsitsipas in three sets at this stage in Madrid last week. The victory should also restore Nadal’s confidence as he seeks a record-extending 12th title at the French Open starting next weekend.

“I’m playing better every match, every weekend,” Nadal said.

Aiming for a ninth trophy in Rome, Nadal’s opponent in Sunday’s final will be either Novak Djokovic or Diego Schwartzman, who were playing later.

Nadal is in the middle of his longest title drought to begin a season since he came onto the scene in 2004. His last trophy came in Toronto last August.

The crowd attempted to encourage Tsitsipas with chants of “Tsi-Tsi-Tsi; Pas-Pas-Pas” but the 20-year-old Greek player couldn’t keep up with Nadal on the long rallies – even though he didn’t play a day earlier after Roger Federer withdrew from the quarterfinals.

Conditions were much slower than on the high-altitude court in Madrid, which favored Nadal and made it tougher for Tsitsipas to execute his attacking game.

Midway through the first set, Nadal produced an awesome forehand winner up the line on the run, drawing a loud roar from the packed Campo Centrale crowd.

Nadal broke Tsitsipas’ serve early in both sets.

In the women’s tournament, Johanna Konta rallied past sixth-seeded Kiki Bertens 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 in nearly three hours to reach the biggest clay-court final of her career.

Konta’s only previous final on clay came recently in Rabat, Morocco, where she lost the title match to Maria Sakkari.

Konta could get a rematch with Sakkari if the Greek qualifier beats fourth-seeded Karolina Pliskova in the other semifinal.

Midway through the first set, Konta surprised Bertens with a drop shot winner during a baseline rally, causing Bertens to fall on her stomach to the clay as she rapidly changed directions. Then in the next game, Konta ran down a drop shot and produced an angled winner.

Bertens was coming off the Madrid Open title.

“She played really smart with the drop shots,” Bertens said. “I was all the time getting myself together and trying to push for more energy. But it was not there.”

The 42nd-ranked Konta served for the first set at 5-4 but was broken at love. But Bertens double faulted to let Konta serve for the second set and Konta got an early break in the third.

More AP Tennis: https://apnews.com/apf-Tennis and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf