Djokovic deals with pain, Federer faces deficit at U.S. Open

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NEW YORK — Maybe, just maybe, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are feeling some lingering after-effects of their historic Wimbledon final last month.

For Djokovic, it’s in the form of a left shoulder that is hurting right now and probably contributed to slower-than-usual serves in the U.S. Open’s second round Wednesday night.

For Federer, it’s in the form of slow starts: He’s lost the opening set each of his first two matches at Flushing Meadows for the first time in 19 times he’s entered the Grand Slam tournament.

If they’re going to reprise their rivalry late next week in the semifinals, both will need to improve.

Djokovic was repeatedly visited by a trainer for shoulder massages at changeovers during a ragged 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-1 victory over 56th-ranked Juan Ignacio Londero of Argentina. Djokovic is a righty, of course, but he uses his other hand both for ball tosses on serves and on his two-fisted backhand – and both were less effective for stretches.

“I was definitely tested. This is something I’ve been carrying for a quite a while now,” said Djokovic, who repeatedly shook his left arm between points while serving in his first-round match Monday and did that again this time. “It wasn’t easy playing with the pain and you have to fight and hope you get lucky with some shots.”

Even though he won for the 35th time in his past 36 Slam matches, including in a fifth-set tiebreaker against Federer at the All England Club on July 14, the Serb looked uncomfortable and went away for stretches, including trailing 3-0 in the second set.

Asked how he plans to prepare for his next match Friday, Djokovic replied with a laugh: “I’ll probably freeze my arm for 48 hours, not do anything with it, and then see what happens.”

Federer, meanwhile, is not about to start trying new tricks now, despite needing to come back twice already.

He got to the third round by beating Damir Dzumhur 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 on an afternoon when rain postponed all but nine scheduled singles matches and every doubles contest.

Still, it’s not as if the guy is going to seek some sort of magic solution. Working up more of a sweat in the gym before heading to the court, say. Or playing an extra practice set.

What he chose to focus on, instead, is looking on the bright side: “Can only do better,” Federer said, “which is a great thing, moving forward.”

At a Flushing Meadows flush with surprises so far – half of the top 12 seeded men already were gone by the time Federer stepped into Arthur Ashe Stadium – he cleaned up his act quickly.

Indeed, Federer was one of the lucky ones who will stay on the usual play-one-day, get-a-day-off Grand Slam schedule. Only matches at Ashe or Louis Armstrong Stadium, the event’s two arenas with a retractable roof, were held.

That included a loss by two-time champion Venus Williams to No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina, and victories for No. 2 Ash Barty, No. 3 Karolina Pliskova and 2017 runner-up Madison Keys on the women’s side, and a win for No. 7 Kei Nishikori on the men’s.

The night program included Williams’ younger sister, Serena, against 17-year-old American Caty McNally.

“You go through a little phase where you don’t start so well and everybody asks you right away, `What are you going to do?’ You’re like, I don’t know. Just go back to the drawing board. Just do the same things again. You hope for a better outcome,” said Federer, owner of a total of 20 major trophies, four ahead of Djokovic. “I don’t think there is, per se, a secret to a good start, other than warming up well, being well-prepared mentally, not underestimating your opponent. I did all of that. You know me, I will always do that.”

He also ceded the first set to 190th-ranked Sumit Nagal of an eventual four-set victory Monday.

Federer called that pattern “just a bit frustrating, more than anything, especially when the level is that low and there is that many errors and the energy is not kind of there.”

Against Dzumhur, who is ranked No. 99 now but has been as high as No. 23, Federer fell behind 4-0 after all of 15 minutes. He was sluggish and his shots were off-target, to the tune of 12 unforced errors within the match’s first 19 points.

“Basically,” Federer concluded, “the entire set, just sort of donated.”

Hardly ideal, on this particular day or in the big picture: Never in the 107-year history of the tournament has a man gone on to claim the trophy after losing the first set in both of his first two matches.

What matters right now, of course, is that Federer is still in the draw.

Borna Coric, who was seeded 12th, was the latest to exit, withdrawing because of a lower back strain before he was supposed to face Grigor Dimitrov on Wednesday. That followed losses Tuesday by a quartet of top-10 men all on Rafael Nadal’s half of the bracket: No. 4 Dominic Thiem, No. 8 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 9 Karen Khachanov and No. 10 Roberto Bautista Agut.

Australian Open director: Novak Djokovic’s hamstring had 3-cm tear

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said Novak Djokovic played at the Grand Slam event with a muscle tear of 3 centimeters – a little more than an inch – in his left hamstring along the way to winning the championship.

“He gets a bad rap, but at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone can question his athleticism. This guy, I did see, he had a 3-centimeter tear in his hammy,” Tiley said in an interview.

“The doctors are … going to tell you the truth,” Tiley said. “I think there was a lot of speculation of whether it was true or not. It’s hard to believe that someone can do what they do with those types of injuries. But he’s remarkable.”

Djokovic won the trophy at Melbourne Park by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets for a record-extending 10th title there and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam trophy overall. Rafael Nadal is the only other man who has won that many majors.

The triumph also allowed Djokovic to return to No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

The 35-year-old from Serbia hurt his hamstring during a tune-up tournament in Adelaide ahead of the Australian Open. He wore a heavy bandage on his left thigh and was visited by trainers during matches in Week 1 in Melbourne.

He said he took “a lot” of painkiller pills and did various treatments to help the leg.

“Let me put it like this: I don’t say 100%, but 97% of the players, when you get results of the MRI, you go straight to the referee’s office and pull out of the tournament,” Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said after the final. “But not him. … His brain is working different.”

Aryna Sabalenka wins 1st Grand Slam title at Australian Open

2023 Australian Open - Day 13
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MELBOURNE, Australia – One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself – and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.’ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

“I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions,” she said, “and win this one.”

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy – she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check – she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now – is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph (195 kph), Sabalenka’s at 119 mph (192 kph).

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”