What’s it like to play Nadal at French Open? ‘Rough’

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PARIS (AP) Like so many others who have faced Rafael Nadal, Yannick Hanfmann thought he had a plan. Until, that is, tennis’ greatest clay-court player dismantled it stroke by stroke on the red dirt where he has won 11 French Open titles.

“After the first two sets, you’re thinking like, `Damn,”‘ Hanfmann, a German ranked 184th, said after losing 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 on Monday. “It’s rough.”

The 27-year-old former college player at the University of Southern California, who won three qualifying matches to earn the dubious honor of being Nadal’s punching bag in the opening round of the main draw, didn’t make a fool of himself in what was his first career match on the showcase Court Philippe Chatrier.

Indeed, in what would have amounted to a minor earthquake in the arena that is practically Nadal’s backyard had he converted, Hanfmann even had four chances to break the Spaniard in his first service game.

But the experience of facing Nadal for the first time, and at Roland Garros to boot, can do strange things to the uninitiated.

Before the first point was played, as the players broke away from their pre-match photo session with two kids at the net, Hanfmann stuck out a hand, looking for a shake. Later, even he couldn’t explain why he had done it, and not waited until the end of the match, as is traditional. Had Nadal blanked him, the memes could have gone viral. Thankfully, the winner of 17 major titles didn’t leave Hanfmann hanging and instead took his outstretched hand.

“That was weird. I don’t know what I was doing, to be honest. I was a bit out of it there,” Hanfmann said. “I saw him shaking this kid’s hand and the ref’s hand and I then stuck out my hand. I don’t know why.”

Looking ahead, the one hour and 57 minutes of tennis in a brisk breeze didn’t reveal any hitherto unknown secrets about how Nadal is feeling in his pursuit again this year of the Musketeers’ cup. After his unsteady first game, the 32-year-old was not pressed hard or long enough to gauge much about what the next two weeks might have in store.

But Hanfmann got some answers.

Having only ever watched Nadal, he’d been curious to find out for himself exactly what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the left-hander’s fiercely spun shots.

Well, now he knows.

“That was kind of cool,” Hanfmann said, showing he can put a positive spin on things, too. “It just comes off the ground really fast and high, fast high balls. You think you’re set up for it, with the backhand or forehand or whatever, but then you’re still on the back foot and maybe mishit it a little because it’s very spinny.”

And like so many of Nadal’s opponents, he also was struck by just how hard it is to unsettle him.

“You just feel like, `OK, here I played a great shot,’ but then there’s a great answer from him,” Hanfmann said.

Roger Federer’s first-round opponent, 74th-ranked Lorenzo Sonego, said the same sort of thing after losing 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 on Sunday to the 20-time major champion.

And top-seeded Novak Djokovic made light work Monday of his first-round match, a 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Hubert Hurkacz, ranked No. 44, from Poland.

The consolation?

Once the sting of defeat has gone, all three will have a story to tell.

“In a couple weeks, years, of course,” Hanfmann said. “Yeah, I mean, to play him and, you know, now I know how it feels, kind of. You know, to have a guy like him, he has such a unique game on clay.”

Duckhee Lee downplays deafness, wins ATP tournament debut

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Duckhee Lee tossed the ball into the air for his first serve in an ATP tournament match, and blasted it past his opponent with a loud pop.

The 21-year-old South Korean never heard it. He was born deaf.

The tour’s first deaf professional player says he doesn’t want to be defined by the disability that he has overcome well enough to play at the sport’s highest level.

His first appearance in a top-level tournament will last at least until the second round. Lee beat Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland 7-6 (4), 6-1 in the first round of the Winston-Salem Open on Monday, earning a matchup with No. 3 seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland.

As much as the opening-round victory meant to Lee and his career, it might have meant even more to hearing-impaired athletes in all sports.

“Don’t be discouraged and if you try hard, you can do anything, you can achieve anything you want,” Lee said through an interpreter, adding that he “doesn’t want people to get discouraged and get down about their disability.”

The ability to hear carries a particular importance in tennis. Players often insist on silence during points so they can hear the ball off their opponent’s strings and identify the spin in a split-second.

Lee makes up for it with his eyes, sharpening his focus on his opponent’s swing, how that player makes contact and the speed and spin of the ball as it’s racing toward him.

Complicating things further, he also doesn’t speak English, reads lips instead of using sign language, and relies on hand gestures from umpires making calls.

Because he can’t hear the score announcements, he keeps track of points and games in his head – which can be more difficult in smaller events that don’t have courtside scoreboards. It led to a hiccup early during his main-draw debut when he lined up to serve after a game had been decided.

“I think (the umpire) forgot to give the signal” at times during the match, he said, adding that he “was hoping he would give in and out signals.”

The debut in Winston-Salem marked the next step up the tennis ladder for Lee, who started playing tennis at age 7 – the year after he realized he was deaf, though doctors had diagnosed his condition as a toddler.

“People made fun of (me) because of the disability and said (I) shouldn’t be playing,” Lee said, adding that his motivation was to “enjoy (my) life by overcoming my disability.”

Lee made his debut on the ITF Futures Tour at 14 and won eight titles before he turned 18, then reached three finals of the ATP Challenger Tour, including one in June, falling to Dudi Sela at the Baptist Health Little Rock Open in Arkansas. He brought a No. 212 world ranking to the central North Carolina hardcourts.

He’ll always remember his first ATP-level victory – and not just because of the result. Lee was two points away from sealing the victory when thunderstorms forced a weather delay of nearly 5 hours. He and Laakonsen came back to the court at roughly 10:15 p.m. – and wrapped up their match in 87 seconds.

When he was asked how he spent the delay, Lee got his point across with pantomime, mimicking someone playing table tennis and shooting basketball, because there was both a pingpong table and pop-a-shot machine in the players’ lounge. He smiled as his translator said how “he loves the facility here.”

Amanda Anisimova out of U.S. Open after father’s death

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NEW YORK — American teenager Amanda Anisimova withdrew from the U.S. Open on Tuesday because of the recent death of her father and coach, Konstantin.

A statement from family members, released by Anisimova’s representatives, said: “We are shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of our father. We appreciate the outpouring of love and support during this difficult time and ask that you respect our privacy.”

The U.S. Tennis Association announced that Anisimova had pulled out of the year’s last Grand Slam tournament, where main-draw play begins Monday.

Anisimova, who was born in New Jersey to Russian parents and moved to Florida when she was 3, is currently ranked 24th and would have been seeded for the U.S. Open.

She is an up-and-coming star in women’s tennis who reached the semifinals at the French Open in June at age 17.

Anisimova upset defending champion Simona Halep in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, before losing to eventual champion Ash Barty in three sets.

Her first WTA title came in April at Bogota, Colombia.

As a junior, Anisimova won the 2017 U.S. Open girls’ title, beating Coco Gauff in the final.