Spain edges Belgium to reach ATP Cup semifinals

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SYDNEY — Rafael Nadal lost a singles match for only the second time since July, and was two points from another defeat not long after that would have ended Spain’s run at the ATP Cup.

But after losing to David Goffin 6-4, 7-6 (3) in the singles on Friday, the top-ranked Nadal combined with Pablo Carreno Busta to win the deciding doubles in a match tiebreaker against Belgium. The victory just after 1 a.m. in Sydney put Davis Cup champion Spain into the semifinals against host Australia.

“David played a great match. Better than me. I was suffering a lot physically today. Was big humidity,” Nadal said. “But at the same time is fair to say that we are in the worst position to play the final eight, because we came from Perth. That’s these three hours’ time changing, different weather conditions, playing against a team that have been here for the last 10 days.

“And today we had very heavy conditions out there, so probably we had the worst situation possible to play this tie. We are super happy that finally we find a way to be in that semifinals, and tomorrow is another day.”

Second-ranked Novak Djokovic had a comeback 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (4) win over Denis Shapovalov of Canada to clinch a semifinal spot for Serbia against Russia.

Dusan Lajovic had earlier beaten Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4, 6-2 and so Djokovic’s win sealed the victory ahead of the doubles match, giving Serbia a spot in the semifinals. Serbia won the doubles to complete a 3-0 sweep.

The night session was seesawing encounter until the end.

Roberto Bautista Agut had given Spain a 1-0 lead when he continued his run of straight-set wins with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Kimmer Coppejans, a late replacement for Belgium playing captain Steve Darcis.

Nadal didn’t drop a set in three group-stage singles matches in Perth in the new international team competition, but was unable to break down a free-swinging Goffin in Sydney.

He appeared fatigued at times in the singles, and again in the doubles against Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen, dropping the first set in a tiebreaker. The Belgians were two points from victory at 5-4 on Busta’s serve but the Spanish players rallied and got the decisive break when the chair umpire ruled that Vliegen’s racket encroached over the net as he volleyed. Spain converted the break with that point, and Nadal served out to level the match.

In the end, Nadal’s big-time experience helped Spain clinch the doubles 6-7 (7), 7-5, 10-7.

Nadal went into the singles match as the big favorite, having lost only one match – to Alexander Zverev in the round-robin stage of the ATP Finals – since his Wimbledon semifinal loss to Roger Federer.

The 11th-ranked Goffin took it to Nadal, attacking at every opportunity and shutting down his rival’s options.

“Oh, it’s always big when you play Rafa on a big stadium, night session, you play for your country,” Goffin said. “We were 1-0 down, I had to step out on the court and try to fight, to show what I can do to play my best tennis, try to go, to stick to my line, try to dictate, be aggressive.

“That’s what I did. So a match like this, to win against Rafa, it’s something big, something big for me.”

Djokovic lost a set for the first time in the tournament, but managed to hold off Shapovalov, controlling the tiebreaker after three sets lasting 2 1/2 hours.

Dusan Lajovic had earlier beaten Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4, 6-2 and so Djokovic’s win sealed the victory ahead of the doubles match, giving Serbia a spot in the semifinals. Serbia won the doubles to complete a 3-0 sweep.

“That was so close, it could have gone in a different way easily. (Shapovalov) was playing terrific tennis,” Djokovic said. “It felt, not a little bit, fully like I’m playing at home.”

Djokovic, who has won a record seven Australian Open men’s singles titles, went 3-0 in the group stage in Brisbane.

“I’m mean, Brisbane we had amazing support – but this has taken it to a different level,” Djokovic said. “All the Serbian people came out today.”

The constant chants and even a burst of trumpet from the flag-waving Serbian fans certainly helped Djokovic. The 16-time major champion reveled in the team environment, with his teammates and coaches on the side of the court, and the echo of “Nole, Nole, Nole” going around the stadium.

Shapovalov complained about the noise made as he served a double-fault to fall behind 4-0 in the tiebreaker, and the umpire asked the crowd to keep quiet during the service motion.

He was agitated during the match but didn’t complain later, saying he was getting more comfortable taking on Djokovic and the other top players.

“With my confidence right now, with my game, I really feel that I can take it to anyone, and I feel like against anyone I have a chance to win,” Shapovalov said. “Today again, it’s another step for me, showing me that I’m right there with these guys. Honestly, I was a couple points away from taking the match. So, yeah, I think I’m at a really good position.”

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?”