John Millman back at practice after backyard tennis during pandemic

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BRISBANE, Australia — Just four matches after losing his five-setter against Roger Federer at the Australian Open, John Millman was having to scramble to find a practice court.

It’s not like he was suddenly an unknown to Aussie tennis fans. More a case of making himself at home as the coronavirus pandemic forced athletes everywhere to think outside of the box.

The professional tennis tours have been suspended. His regular practice venue at the Queensland Tennis Centre, which hosts the season-opening Brisbane International, was shuttered during the lockdown because of strict social distancing restrictions.

So, Millman went the social route, playing on backyard courts that belonged to people he sometimes was meeting for the first time.

“It was awesome – really good fun,” he said. “I had a couple of lovely families that welcomed me in and allowed me to keep my eye in. It was really nice. Stuck to the (social distancing) protocols, of course, so we were ticking all those boxes.”

Chris Mahony, Queensland’s National Academy manager, organized for 12 professional players including Millman to have fitness equipment shipped to their homes and for them to maintain contact with trainers via digital and other means. He also organized a half-dozen courts owned by people from within the academy network where players could practice.

Then Millman widened the network to his fan base.

“I think Johnny said something in one of his newspaper articles and before he knew it, he had people contacting him and offering courts,” Mahony said.

With Australian authorities managing to contain the spread of the virus, the local lockdown is being eased gradually and some sports venues are reopening for practice.

So Millman and Co. were back at work on Monday in the shadows of Pat Rafter Arena.

The 30-year-old Millman has seen the highs of lows of being a tennis pro, from reaching the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 2018 after a win over then No. 2-ranked Federer that continued with his run into the Top 40 in the rankings, to playing in the lower tiers “for a couple of hundred bucks a round” after returning from surgeries.

Despite having only 12 competitive matches in 2020, including a grinding four-hour third-round loss to Federer on the center court at the Australian Open in January, Millman is in no rush for the tours to resume until it is safe for players, staff and officials.

He’s proposing instead some domestic team events in Australia to keep players occupied and give local tennis fans more of a look at Australian talent while international travel bans are in play.

The No. 43-ranked Millman is also happy for the conversation about player compensation to be high on the agenda around the tennis circuit, saying it’s years overdue. Players in some sports have been forced to take big pay cuts because of the coronavirus.

In tennis, Millman said, the problem runs deeper than the pandemic despite a recent push to increase prize money for the early rounds and qualifying tournaments at the Grand Slam events.

“Players outside 100 are struggling all year round whether there is coronavirus or not,” Millman told the Australian Associated Press. “It should be managed better by the ATP, the WTA and the ITF.

“Maybe this starts the discussion, but I won’t hold my breath.”

Alcaraz loses to Goffin in 1st match as No. 1

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Carlos Alcaraz’s first match as the No. 1-ranked player ended with a straight-set loss to David Goffin at the Astana Open.

The 19-year-old Spaniard lost 7-5, 6-3 in his first tour match since winning the U.S. Open and capturing the No. 1 ranking.

“David was playing really, really well. To come back to competition is never easy,” Alcaraz said. “It’s really tough for me, for my confidence.”

Alcaraz came from 5-2 down to level the first set at 5-5, only to be broken again by his Belgian opponent.

“When you play against the World No. 1 on a big stage, big crowd, the fire inside gives you so much power to play your best tennis because you don’t have any choice,” Goffin said. “You have to fight and give your best and that was the case today.”

Second-seeded Daniil Medvedev and No. 3-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas both avoided similar upsets. Medvedev beat Albert Ramos-Vinolas of Spain 6-3, 6-1 and Tsitsipas ousted Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin 6-3. 6-4.

Kasatkina knocks out Raducanu at Agel Open

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OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — Fifth-seeded Daria Kasatkina defeated 2021 U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu 7-5, 6-4 to advance to the second round of the Agel Open.

Kasatkina was playing her first match since losing in the first round of the U.S. Open and will next face Ekaterina Alexandrova.

Sixth-seeded Belinda Bencic of Switzerland rallied to eliminate former top-five player Eugenie Bouchard of Canada 6-7 (7), 6-1, while Aliaksandra Sasnovich upset eighth-seeded Jelena Ostapenko 6-2, 6-2.

American qualifiers Alycia Parks and Catherine McNally both advanced. Parks upset Czech Karolina Pliskova 6-0, 7-6 (3) and McNally eased past Anna Blinkova 6-1, 6-2 at the indoor hardcourt event in the Czech eastern city of Ostrava.