Serena Williams loses singles for first time in Fed Cup career

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EVERETT, Wash. — Serena Williams lost a Fed Cup singles match for the first time in her career, falling to Anastasija Sevastova in three sets on Saturday night as Latvia pulled even with the United States at 2-all in the best-of-five match.

Sevastova won 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (4), avenging a loss to Williams in their only previous meeting in the 2018 U.S. Open semifinals when Sevastova won only three games.

This time it was Sevastova celebrating at the end, closing out the match with a huge serve Williams couldn’t return.

Williams had been 14-0 in Fed Cup singles dating to her debut in 1999, including a straight-sets win over Jelena Ostapenko on Friday night that had two tiebreakers.

“It’s obviously hard to play Serena and she’s an amazing champion,” Sevastova said. “You just try and enjoy it as best you can and give your best.”

The best-of-five series between the countries will be decided by the doubles match late Saturday night. The winner will advance to the Fed Cup Finals in April in Budapest, Hungary.

Williams had chances to clinch a victory for the U.S. and wrap up its spot in the finals. Williams rallied from a 5-2 deficit in the opening set by winning four straight games and had three set points with Sevastova serving. But the Latvian managed to hold serve thanks to a couple of errors by Williams and a pair of aces.

Williams broke the serve of Sevastova four times in the second-set, but couldn’t find the same success in the final set as both players held serve into the tiebreaker. Williams pulled even at 4-all, but Sevastova won the final three points and the match.

Both of the top-ranked Americans stumbled in singles on Saturday. Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin lost in three sets to Ostapenko in the opening match.

Ostapenko beat Kenin 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 to give Latvia its first point against the Americans. Ostapenko broke Kenin four times in the third set as the former French Open champion outlasted the most recent Grand Slam winner.

Fatigue from a whirlwind past seven days since winning in Melbourne may have finally caught up with Kenin. She struggled with Ostapenko’s power before adjusting to dominate the second set, but she couldn’t hold serve in the final set.

The pair exchanged breaks in the first three games of the third, leaving Ostapenko with a 2-1 lead. She nearly gave the advantage back to Kenin, but Ostapenko saved a pair of break points to take a 3-1 lead on a swinging forehand volley.

Ostapenko broke Kenin for the third time in the set for a 4-1 lead, but gave a game back to the American with a double fault.

Again, Kenin couldn’t hold. Ostapenko’s forehand winner gave her a 5-2 lead and she closed out the match in 1 hour, 58 minutes.

“It’s always very special to play for my country and I was just trying my best today,” Ostapenko said. “Until the last point I knew it was going to be a very tough match and I was trying to play aggressive.”

Kenin opened the event with a dominant win over Sevastova on Friday night. She found the challenge against Ostapenko far tougher.

The big-hitting, former French Open champion gave Williams all she could handle in the second singles match on Friday, losing because of errors in both tiebreakers. Ostapenko still had plenty of errors against Kenin – 49 unforced errors – but also had 34 winners to just 13 for Kenin.

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?”