Halep, Kerber avoid 3rd-round chaos at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber have held Grand Slam trophies aloft, and so have learned to keep their heads down when clusters of highly-ranked players start losing in the first week of majors.

Wimbledon champion Halep and Kerber, who won her breakthrough major in Australia in 2016 and has added two Grand Slam titles since, navigated a chaotic third round at the Australian Open to reach the second week.

Second-seeded Karolina Pliskova, a semifinalist here last year, and No. 6 Belinda Bencic, a semifinalist at last year’s U.S. Open, had straight-sets losses on Saturday, the day after 23-time major winner Serena Williams and defending champion Naomi Osaka exited in third-round upsets.

“Not at all. I’m not focusing on other players – just focusing on myself,” Halep said after her 6-1, 6-4 win over Yulia Putintseva on Rod Laver Arena, the match after Pliskova lost to 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3) to 30th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. “It doesn’t matter who is winning, who is losing, I just have to do my job when I step onto court.”

Kerber had 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-3 win over Camila Giorgi. In a later news conference, she almost laughed when asked if nervousness was contagious in the locker room when the top players start exiting.

“Every match starts from zero – doesn’t matter who against you play,” she said. “You have sometimes a little bit bad days, good days. So it’s more about caring yourself, working on your strengths and going for it. So it’s nothing about looking around.”

The left-handed Kerber next faces Pavlyuchenkova, who was a junior champion here 12 years ago when she beat Caroline Wozniacki in the final. They’re playing for a spot in the quarterfinals, a stage Pavlyuchekova has reached five times but never surpassed at the majors.

She said she hasn’t been patient enough in the past, but is putting more value on each match now. She’d only ever taken one set off Pliskova in six previous losses, but decided to target one of the best serves in the women’s game on Rod Laver – and it worked.

Having a bunch of top players missing from the second week doesn’t come into her thinking, either.

“I don’t focus so much on names any more. I’ve been on the tour for a while,” she said, when asked about the absence of Williams, Osaka and so on. “Those are really big names and great players, but it’s tennis. Nowadays, as you can see, surprises happen. I just try not to lose myself and be in the present, do what I have. I have the next match to play Angelique – why should I care about all the other names?”

Williams, who has won seven Australian titles among her 23 majors, 2018 champion Wozniacki and defending champion Osaka all lost on Friday. Wozniacki went immediately into retirement but Williams vowed to continue her pursuit of Margaret Court’s all-time record 24 majors after her loss to Wang Qiang, a player she’d beaten in 44 minutes at last year’s U.S. Open. Osaka, who won back-to-back majors at the 2018 U.S. Open and last year here in Australia, lost to 15-year-old Coco Gauff.

Bencic, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open last September, was rolled 6-0, 6-1 in 49 minutes by 28th-seeded Anett Kontaveit, who will next play Iga Swiatek, the No. 59-ranked player from Poland who took out 19th-seeded Donna Vekic 7-5, 6-3.

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

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LONDON – Former top-10 player Fernando Verdasco accepted a voluntary provisional doping suspension of two months after testing positive for a medication for ADHD, the International Tennis Integrity Agency announced.

Verdasco, who turned 39 this month, said he was taking methylphenidate as medication prescribed by his doctor to treat ADHD but forgot to renew his therapeutic use exemption for the drug. The integrity agency said Verdasco has now been granted an exemption by the World Anti-Doping Agency moving forward.

He tested positive at an ATP Challenger tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in February.

The integrity agency said in a news release that it “accepts that the player did not intend to cheat, that his violation was inadvertent and unintentional, and that he bears no significant fault or negligence for it,” and so what could have been a two-year suspension was reduced to two months.

Verdasco will be eligible to compete on Jan. 8.

The Spaniard is a four-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, reaching that stage most recently in 2013 at Wimbledon, where he blew a two-set lead in a five-set loss to eventual champion Andy Murray.

Verdasco reached a career-best ranking of No. 7 in April 2009 and currently is No. 125.

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

Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports
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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.”