Doubles defeat doesn’t dent Djokovic’s comeback

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TOKYO — Novak Djokovic’s return from injury had a stuttering start at the Japan Open, with defeat Monday in the opening round of doubles.

Yet for the No. 1-ranked Djokovic, playing at the tournament for the first time, the result was less important than emerging from the match unscathed.

Djokovic had not played since retiring with an injured left shoulder in his U.S. Open fourth-round match against Stan Wawrinka, who was leading 6-4, 7-5, 2-1.

The fourth-seeded pair of Mate Pavic and Bruno Soares beat a rusty Djokovic and Filip Krajinovic 6-2, 4-6, 10-4 in sweltering heat on the Colosseum show court at a revamped Ariake Tennis Forest Park. The venue will stage the Olympic tennis tournament next year.

“One of the reasons for playing the doubles was that I wanted to see how the shoulder feels during match play,” Djokovic said. “Obviously, doubles is quite different from singles, but you’re still playing an official match – you still get the nerves, and have to battle on court.

“There was a lot of serving and returning, slow balls and fast balls, but it seems like my shoulder is fine after that, so I’m hoping that’s going to be the case for the singles.”

Djokovic said it was good to play in Tokyo, “because I want to win the Olympic Games next year.”

“I can get a feel for the court and the conditions, but the tournament will be played a bit earlier than this, at an even warmer time and higher humidity – you have to mentally accept that and then prepare yourself,” he said. “Hopefully I can come here early for the Olympic tournament and fully prepare myself.”

Djokovic kicks off his singles campaign on Tuesday against Australia’s Alexei Popyrin and – if successful – will meet local wildcard entry Go Soeda in the second round. The 133rd-ranked Soeda upset Jan-Lennard Struff 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3.

Marin Cilic also advanced to the second round and will face either Italian Lorenzo Sonego or South Korean Hyeon Chung. Cilic defeated Japanese wild card Yuichi Sugita 6-4, 6-4.

Like Djokovic, Cilic also has not played since the US Open, where he lost to Rafael Nadal in the last 16. This was a welcome win for the Croatian who has slumped 27 places from the career-high No. 3 rank that he occupied in January last year.

“It can be that, when you have a break, you come to a tournament fresh but actually you are not match fit, a little bit rusty, but this far into the season it feels good,” Cilic said.

“In a way it’s been a little bit of a new experience this year,” he said. “I was training hard, trying to push myself the same as the last few seasons – I wasn’t doing much different, but I wasn’t following up with the results, and I’ve just felt more drained and fatigued.”

Fifth-seeded Lucas Pouille advanced to the second round with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz. Pouille will face Yoshihito Nishioka, who defeated Joao Sousa 7-5, 6-3.

Frances Tiafoe lifts Team World to 1st Laver Cup win

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LONDON — The last to arrive, befitting his reputation in the locker room, Frances Tiafoe strutted into the post-match news conference after clinching Team World’s Laver Cup victory over Roger Federer’s star-studded Team Europe and shouted, “Champs are here!”

Then the 24-year-old from Maryland joined his teammates at the table where the silver trophy was resting Sunday night, put down a bottle of water, pulled a Budweiser out of his red jacket and smiled that wide smile of his.

Performing with the same infectious showmanship and crunch-time success he displayed en route to his first Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open earlier this month, Tiafoe staved off four match points and came back to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 1-6, 7-6 (11), 10-8, giving Team World its first triumph in five editions of an event founded by Federer’s management company.

“I don’t like losing,” said Federer, a 20-time major champion whose final match before retirement was a loss alongside Rafael Nadal in doubles against Tiafoe and Jack Sock on Friday night. “It’s not fun. It just leaves not the best taste.”

When Tsitsipas put a forehand into the net to end Sunday’s contest – and the three-day competition – Tiafoe dropped his racket and fell to his back on the court, where teammates piled atop him. After getting on his feet, Tiafoe cupped a hand to his ear, asking spectators for more noise, then pointed to his chest and yelled, “I’m him! I’m him!”

“When it becomes a circus out here, and I’m just using the crowd and acting like a little kid and having a bunch of reactions … I end up playing really well and I start building momentum off it,” Tiafoe said. “I’m able to play and function in that better than my opponents, it seems.”

Using the nickname other players gave Tiafoe to reflect the way he embraces big moments, Team World captain John McEnroe said: “Frances is `Prime Time.’ He loves this stuff.”

McEnroe had been 0-4 while leading his squad against his former playing rival, Team Europe captain Bjorn Borg; both indicated they would be back for the 2023 Laver Cup in Vancouver, but that might be their last go-round.

This one served as a celebration of Federer and the 41-year-old Swiss star’s career.

Tiafoe responded with a quip when asked whether he might owe Federer some form of “I’m sorry” for beating him in his finale or for defeating his team, which also included Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray for a total of 66 major singles titles. That, incidentally, is 66 more than Team World, a collection of 20-somethings (Sock turned 30 on Saturday).

“”I’m not going to apologize to him. He’s got a lot to apologize for after the last 24 years – after beating everybody on the tour,” said Tiafoe, who went 0-3 against Federer in singles head-to-head. “I will say thank you for having me in this amazing event, what he’s done for the game. He’s a class act. Happy to know him, happy to call him a friend, happy to call him a colleague, and best wishes in his second act. But I will not apologize.”

Team Europe entered Sunday at O2 Arena with an 8-4 lead; the first team to 13 points would win.

Each match on Day 3 was worth three points, and Team World went ahead thanks to a pair of victories by Felix Auger-Aliassime, a 22-year-old from Canada. He beat Djokovic 6-3, 7-6 (3), after partnering with Sock to edge Murray and Matteo Berrettini 2-6, 6-3, 10-8 in doubles.

Tiafoe then made it 13-8, but it wasn’t easy.

He went a tournament-record 8-0 in tiebreakers at Flushing Meadows this month and was just as resilient Sunday.

“It’s been a long time that Frances has been playing the big guys close and losing a lot of close battles. It’s great to see lately he’s been winning,” said Taylor Fritz, an American who is the same age as Tiafoe and has known him for years. “It’s about time that he steps up and the matches go the other way. Today was a joke.”

That’s because Tiafoe was a single point from losing to Tsitsipas four times in their second-set tiebreaker, but somehow got through that. Then, at 4-all in the concluding match tiebreaker – first to 10, win by two – Tiafoe sprinted from behind the baseline to near the net and barely got to a drop shot by Tsitsipas, somehow lunging to flick an angled winner.

While most of the 16,365 fans went wild, Tiafoe went around the net and stood still, hands on his hips, relishing the atmosphere.

“We put him in the slot that he was in today for a reason,” said Team World’s Tommy Paul, another 24-year-old American, “and he stepped up for us, big time.”

Sonego beats Bublik at Moselle Open to win 1st title of 2022

Winston-Salem Open - Day 5
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METZ, France – Lorenzo Sonego clinched his first title of the season by beating Alexander Bublik 7-6 (3), 6-2 in the Moselle Open final.

The 27-year-old Italian did not drop a set all tournament as he won the third title of his career and first on hard courts.

The unseeded Sonego recovered from 0-40 down in the fifth game of the match and secured victory when the seventh-seeded Bublik sent a backhand return long.

He then danced on court as he celebrated a perfect tournament where he also beat defending champion Hubert Hurkacz in the semifinals.

Sonego’s win will move him up 21 places in the ATP rankings and into 44th place.