Injury, glitches as Madrid Open tennis presents COVID gaming

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So here’s a dose of realism — or surrealism — for the first video game tournament of the coronavirus pandemic involving professional tennis players: Thanks to Rafael Nadal’s balky back, a match got postponed Monday.

That bit of news from Day 1 at the controller-instead-of-racket Madrid Open came 24 hours after another pro, Gael Monfils, withdrew because of his ties to a streaming service not involved in this virtual venture.

Add those developments to technical glitches, some odd announcing and plenty of enthusiasm from the participants — including a particularly creative Belinda Bencic, the 2019 U.S. Open semifinalist who posted a video of herself entering a living room to the strains of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” — as tennis joined the move to gaming for a sports world largely on hold during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I don’t know when it’s going to be over, this nightmare, because it’s been really long already, and it feels like it’s never going to be over,” said Feliciano Lopez, a pro who’s been ranked in the top 20 in singles and doubles and is the Madrid Open’s tournament director.

The real clay-court tuneup for the French Open was supposed to be played May 1-10, but it is among more than 30 tournaments canceled or postponed because tennis tours are suspended until at least mid-July. Wimbledon was called off for the first time in 75 years.

There are 16 women and 16 men in the four-day pretend Madrid event, including 19-time Grand Slam champion Nadal, three-time major winner Andy Murray and former No. 1 women Caroline Wozniacki — who retired from the tour in January — Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova. A combined 300,000 euros (about $325,000) in prize money is available, with the champs deciding how much to donate to tennis players having a hard time financially now. An additional 50,000 euros (about $55,000) is going to virus-related charity.

There’s a round-robin format, with one-set matches up to just 3 games, and tiebreakers at 3-all. Each match lasts about 10 minutes.

Viewers can watch streams available with English and Spanish commentary, which sometimes drowns out the players, who can be seen and heard via picture-in-picture boxes.

Diego Schwartzman, who won twice Monday, acknowledged practicing “for a few days” — and also acknowledged that “I’m not really good at this game.”

The No. 8-ranked Bencic provided the highlight. The 23-year-old from Switzerland walked up a stairway decked out full tennis regalia, replete with a white visor, and lugged a racket bag that she unzipped to grab a game controller.

Nadal won his opener against Denis Shapovalov and was scheduled to play a second match later Monday. But Lopez said he got a text from Nadal explaining “he was really worried about the injury” to his back and wanted to put it off.

There were some hiccups with Monday’s stream, interrupting matches or interviews.

“It was a little bit ‘laggy’ on my side,” said Shapovalov, a 21-year-old from Canada currently ranked 16th. “It seemed like the internet wasn’t great.”

A minute or so into Friday’s tournament draw, a co-host on the English feed apologized after sitting around in silence. There were more apologies from that day’s announcers, including for not knowing how to pronounce players’ names properly — not even close on some — and for not really knowing much at all about real professional tennis.

Then again, none of this has anything at all to do with real tennis, of course.

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?”

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.

And if she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top of tennis.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam title match at age 24 by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she has contested this season.

More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt by a 6-4 score in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners, but also compiled more unforced errors – including a trio that led to a break at love by Linette in the opening game.

The key to both semifinals turned out to be a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, for the most part, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.

“In the tiebreaker, I really found my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Started trusting myself. Started going for my shots.”

Rybakina’s win over Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. She also beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – both owners of major titles – and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”

She delivered serves at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will on Thursday. Her performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are rather misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow; she switched to Kazakhstan in 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That had a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand – and then ceding it just as quickly. Both found the conditions slowed down the tennis balls.

“Kind of misjudged a lot of balls,” Azarenka said.

Rybakina encountered similar issues and her occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point at 5-3 with a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot, wound up taking the game with a backhand she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set belonged to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they competed for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”