Old timer’s day: Karlovic, Bryan bros. in wins for the ages

Getty Images
0 Comments

PARIS (AP) Midnight gym sessions were the key to Ivo Karlovic’s French Open preparations.

For a 40-year-old with two kids to look after, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. was the only time that Karlovic could get away to work on his fitness.

The late-night work paid off when Karlovic produced a 7-6 (4), 7-5, 6-7 (7), 7-5 victory over 37-year-old Feliciano Lopez in the first round Tuesday in a matchup that set a record for combined age between Roland Garros opponents for the Open era.

What’s more is that Karlovic became the first man in his fifth decade to compete in singles at a Grand Slam tournament since Jimmy Connors at the 1992 U.S. Open.

“It means a lot,” Karlovic said. “It’s in the record books as the oldest one and everything. … Right now, any match I win I’m happy – if it’s against older guys or kids – I just like to win.”

In an era where Roger Federer is still thriving at 37 and top-ranked Novak Djokovic and 11-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal are still dominating tennis in their early 30s, matches like the one between Karlovic and Lopez could become the new norm.

Serena Williams also is 37, and her return from pregnancy last year prompted the WTA Tour to add more rankings protection for players coming back from having babies.

Bob and Mike Bryan, who turned 41 last month, beat the Spanish pair of Pablo Carreno Busta and Gerard Granollers in doubles Tuesday for their 20th win in their 20th first-round appearance in Paris.

While top players used to retire in their late 20s and early 30s, sports science has contributed to longer careers.

“I’m spinning. Everyone is getting to the gym an hour before practice now,” said Bob Bryan, who returned to action this year after a hip resurfacing with a metal implant last August.

“They’re doing bands, they’re rolling on those foam rollers, and there’s light weights. That’s all changed from when we were on the tour” (years ago), Bob Bryan added. “Same thing after the practice sessions, everyone goes to the gym. The stakes are higher, the prize money has gone crazy. There’s just more people playing tennis now, competition has become fierce and no one is going out to have a beer after a match. Everyone is really professional.”

The advanced age of players has also meant many more kids on tour. All of the Grand Slam tournaments have nurseries for players’ children.

“We’re all talking about how we’re sleeping and what stroller you have, `How’s the creche at this tournament?’ So the topic of conversation has changed,” said Bob Bryan, who has three kids. “It’s all about babies.”

With his ranking down to No. 95, Karlovic still had direct entry for the French Open but he would have had to go through qualifying if he wanted to enter warmup tournaments in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome. So he decided to stay home in Miami with his wife and kids instead – a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son.

“I was with my kids every day,” he said. “It was really, really nice. I’m happy that after my career I will have that every day.”

But family time made it difficult to focus on tennis.

Karlovic hit every day after dropping his daughter off at preschool, then played with his son and rested before his daughter came home and he had to drive her to other activities. Finally, when the kids went to bed at 11 p.m., he could escape to the gym.

“I’m happy because there is a gym that is open in the night,” Karlovic said.

Lopez also had to limit his clay-court preparation. He couldn’t play in the Madrid Open because he took over as tournament director of his home event this year and ATP Tour rules forbid him from playing.

Still, Lopez extended his record of consecutive Grand Slam tournaments played to 69 – a streak that began in 2002.

Both Lopez and Karlovic have gray in their beards – and Karlovic’s hair is predominantly silver. They each performed plenty of stretching when they walked onto the court for the pre-match coin toss.

Karlovic spread his feet wide apart and shifted his weight from side to side to limber up his 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) frame, while Lopez lifted his knees to his waste to stay loose.

In the end, Karlovic’s 35 aces were the difference.

Afterward, Karlovic kept on getting asked why he keeps playing.

“I’m winning still,” he replied. “So why not?”

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

australian open
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.

And if she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top of tennis.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam title match at age 24 by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she has contested this season.

More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt by a 6-4 score in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners, but also compiled more unforced errors – including a trio that led to a break at love by Linette in the opening game.

The key to both semifinals turned out to be a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, for the most part, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.

“In the tiebreaker, I really found my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Started trusting myself. Started going for my shots.”

Rybakina’s win over Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. She also beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – both owners of major titles – and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”

She delivered serves at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will on Thursday. Her performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are rather misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow; she switched to Kazakhstan in 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That had a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand – and then ceding it just as quickly. Both found the conditions slowed down the tennis balls.

“Kind of misjudged a lot of balls,” Azarenka said.

Rybakina encountered similar issues and her occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point at 5-3 with a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot, wound up taking the game with a backhand she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set belonged to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they competed for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”

Paul, McDonald on US Davis Cup team; Nainkin interim captain

us davis cup
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul and the player who eliminated Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park, Mackenzie McDonald, are among the players picked by interim captain David Nainkin for the U.S. Davis Cup team’s matches at Uzbekistan next week.

Nainkin’s appointment was announced Friday, three weeks after Mardy Fish’s tenure as captain ended.

Nainkin has been with the U.S. Tennis Association since 2004. He will be assisted against Uzbekistan by Dean Goldfine, who coached 20-year-old Ben Shelton during his quarterfinal run at the Australian Open.

Paul beat Shelton in that round before losing to Novak Djokovic on Friday night.

The other members of the U.S. roster are Denis Kudla, Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek. Kudla replaces Jenson Brooksby on the team.

The matches will be played on indoor hard courts on Feb. 3-4.