Shaky start to No. 1 Naomi Osaka’s U.S. Open title defense

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NEW YORK — Naomi Osaka put her right hand in the shape of a gun and pointed two fingers at her temple, her face grim, while she looked toward her guest box.

She’d just dropped the second set, moments after wasting a match point, as her U.S. Open title defense got off to a shaky start Tuesday. Her body language told the story: the eye rolls, the balled up fists covering her face at a changeover, the racket resting atop her head.

Back in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she beat Serena Williams in last year’s chaotic final, the No. 1-seeded Osaka kept digging holes and kept climbing out of them, eventually emerging with a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2 victory over 84th-ranked Anna Blinkova of Russia in the first round.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous in my life,” Osaka told the crowd during her post-match interview. “For me, I just came off really slow and I never really found my rhythm.”

The 21-year-old from Japan wore a black sleeve over her left knee, which has been an issue recently.

But it wasn’t so much her movement as her erratic strokes that presented problems for Osaka, who finished with 50 unforced errors, more than double Blinkova’s total of 22.

“You kind of want to do well after you did well last year,” Osaka said, when asked why she felt so many jitters while trailing 3-0 and 4-1 at the outset.

“Just definitely,” she said, “didn’t want to lose in the first round.”

Osaka avoided that sort of disappointment. Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 21-year-old from Greece who was seeded No. 8, did not. He lost in the first round for the second Slam in a row – and made a lot of noise on his way out, saying during a late dispute with chair umpire Damien Dumusois: “You’re all weirdos.”

After getting broken to trail 4-3 in the last set of his 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (7), 7-5 loss to Andrey Rublev, Tsitsipas was fiddling around with a plastic bag of sweat bands and head wraps at a changeover when Dumusois announced it was time for play to resume.

Tsitsipas said he wasn’t ready; Dumusois, essentially, told him that was too bad. Tsitsipas told the official, who already had warned him about getting coaching help, to go ahead and call him for a violation; Dumusois obliged, docking a point.

“This chair umpire, I don’t know, he has something against me. I don’t know why,” said Tsitsipas, who upset Roger Federer en route to the Australian Open semifinals in January but bowed out of Wimbledon in the first round.

Another highly seeded man went out when No. 10 Roberto Bautista Agut, a Wimbledon semifinalist, was defeated by Mikhail Kukushkin 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, while No. 14 John Isner and 2014 champion Marin Cilic each won in straight sets. No. 2 Rafael Nadal and No. 4 Dominic Thiem were in later matches.

In other women’s results on Day 2, two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza was eliminated by Alison Riske of the U.S. 2-6, 6-1, 6-3, while two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova and No. 13 seed Belinda Bencic both won in two sets.

During the professional era, which began in 1968, only two U.S. Open women’s champions have lost in the first round the following year: It happened in 2005 to Svetlana Kuznetsova and again in 2017 to Angelique Kerber – who was beaten by none other than Osaka, ranked 45th at the time and yet to get past the third round at a major tournament.

Osaka thought back to that match Tuesday.

“I could kind of see how stressed out (Kerber) was and that was in my favor,” Osaka said. “I don’t want to give people that look.”

This victory, difficult as it was, stretched Osaka’s winning streak in hard-court Grand Slam matches to 15, which includes her run to the titles at Flushing Meadows in 2018 and at the Australian Open in January.

Those helped her become the first Japanese tennis player to be ranked No. 1, a spot she regained this month.

Osaka has spoken rather openly about the struggles she’s had dealing with pressure and expectations this season. She said Tuesday that she hoped figuring out how to get past Blinkova – who is now 0-2 at the U.S. Open and 0-4 against top-10 opponents – would boost her moving forward.

“It helps me a lot, because I learn from the tougher matches,” Osaka said. “It helps me be prepared and try to learn and adjust my game plan.”

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

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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.”

Australia beats Croatia 2-1 to reach Davis Cup final

Day Four - Davis Cup Finals 2022
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MALAGA, Spain – Australia had to fight back twice to reach its first Davis Cup final in 19 years after beating Croatia 2-1.

Lleyton Hewitt’s team recovered from losing the first singles. Then the Australian doubles pair battled back from a set down in the decider.

Australia won its 28th and last title in 2003. It has finally got back to the final.

“I am so proud. Australia has a really rich history in this competition,” said Hewitt, who played a record 43 Davis Cup ties for Australia from 1999-2018.

“We have been fortunate to win it all on a number of occasions a long time ago. And I know what it meant to me as a player to play a final, and I am glad these guys can play it.”

Borna Coric put Croatia ahead by beating Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-4, 6-3, but Alex de Minaur leveled after defeating Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-2 to send it to the doubles.

Jordan Thompson and Max Purcell then secured the semifinal win against Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic by 6-7 (3), 7-5, 6-4.

“This is what this team is about, that never-say-die attitude,” De Minaur said.

Canada will face Italy on Saturday in the other semifinal.

In the opener, Kokkinakis struck 11 aces, but Coric was able to break him once in each set.

“On my serve, I felt like it was an ace or he put it back on my toes,” Kokkinakis said.

Cilic, who was on the Croatia team that won the title in 2018, committed 10 double faults. That erratic serve helped De Minaur break Cilic four times and level his head-to-head record with the former U.S Open winner at two wins each.

Thompson and Purcell bettered the more experienced pair of Mektic and Pavic, both ranked in the top 10 in doubles. Thompson and Purcell combined for 13 aces, broke the Croats twice, and never dropped a service game to come back after losing the first-set tiebreaker.

Two-time winner Croatia was the runner-up last year.

“It proved too difficult on the court today,” Cilic said. “(But) for us it has been a great year again after the finals last year to reach the semis.”

The final is on Sunday on the indoor court in Malaga.