Virus cases at Djokovic’s event put sports under scrutiny

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BELGRADE, Serbia — Novak Djokovic’s charity tennis exhibition series, combined with an overall softening of coronavirus restrictions in Serbia and Croatia, has been followed by an increase in the number of positive cases among professional athletes.

Two tennis players ranked among the top 40 in the world and five players at Serbia’s biggest soccer club have tested positive for the virus after being involved in sporting events where fans packed into the stands and social distancing was not enforced.

Djokovic, the top-ranked player in the world who previously said he was against taking a vaccine for the virus even if it became mandatory to travel, will now be tested as well, his media team said Monday.

”He is fine, he has no symptoms but nonetheless, he needs to do the test and then we will see what’s going on,” they said in a statement.

Djokovic was the face behind the Adria Tour, a series of exhibition events that started in Belgrade and moved to Zadar, Croatia, this weekend.

Grigor Dimitrov, a three-time Grand Slam semifinalist from Bulgaria, said Sunday he tested positive for the virus. Borna Coric played Dimitrov on Saturday in Zadar and said Monday he has also tested positive for the virus.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic was among the spectators at the beach resort and will also be tested.

“I am really sorry for any harm I might have caused,” said Coric,

anyone who had contact with him to be tested.

That could be a lot of people. Coric, Djokovic and other players, including Marin Cilic, played basketball with a local team last week and posed together for photos.

Djokovic was supposed to play in the series final on Sunday, but that event was canceled.

Djokovic and Dimitrov also played in the Adria Tour’s opening exhibition a week earlier in Belgrade. Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, who both played in the Serbian capital, said they would self-isolate despite negative tests.

“I deeply apologize to anyone that I have potentially put at risk by playing this tour,” Zverev

on Twitter.

In a separate incident, Serbian soccer club Red Star Belgrade said five of its players had tested positive for the virus.

The Serbian champions said Marko Gobeljic, Njegos Petrovic, Dusan Jovancic, Marko Konatar and Branko Jovicic are feeling fine and remain in isolation.

Four of the players have displayed symptoms of COVID-19 while one has shown no symptoms, Red Star said.

The five players did not attend the team’s last match on Saturday but where there when Red Star played Partizan Belgrade in the Serbian Cup semifinals this month in front of about 20,000 fans. There was no social distancing and few wore face masks.

There has also been an increase in virus cases among soccer players in other countries, notably Russia.

The virus outbreak at the tennis event in Zadar could hurt Croatia’s attempts to restart its lucrative tourist trade, which draws in visitors from around Europe but has slowed sharply during the pandemic. Tourism supplied a quarter of the Croatian government’s revenue last year.

Croatian Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic said authorities have taken steps to protect the vulnerable groups in Zadar by stopping nursing home and hospital visits. He added that Croatia “currently has one of the most favorable situations in Europe” despite a spike in new cases that followed easing of lockdown measures. Croatia is scheduled to host a general election on July 5.

Neighboring Serbia held elections on Sunday. They were preceded by a loosening of lockdown measures, paving the way for the governing right-wing populist party to win a majority. It also made it possible for Djokovic to hold his first Adria Tour event in Serbia last week, and for Red Star to hold soccer games with packed, raucous crowds.

Djokovic’s decision to fly home to Serbia before being tested has also attracted scrutiny. Most other players at the Adria Tour stayed in Croatia for testing after Dimitrov’s positive test was announced and Sunday’s final between Djokovic and Andrey Rublev was called off.

The 2020 tennis season, like all sports, has been massively impacted by the pandemic. Wimbledon was originally supposed to start next week but has been canceled outright. The current plan is for Grand Slam tennis to return at the U.S. Open on Aug. 31, with a delayed French Open in September and October.

However, New York’s record as a city hit hard by the virus means some players were already skeptical. Top-ranked Ash Barty told The Associated Press this month she had “concerns” about going to the U.S. Open. Djokovic and Rafael Nadal also questioned restrictions on issues like players’ movements and their entourages.

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

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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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.”

Paul, McDonald on US Davis Cup team; Nainkin interim captain

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul and the player who eliminated Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park, Mackenzie McDonald, are among the players picked by interim captain David Nainkin for the U.S. Davis Cup team’s matches at Uzbekistan next week.

Nainkin’s appointment was announced Friday, three weeks after Mardy Fish’s tenure as captain ended.

Nainkin has been with the U.S. Tennis Association since 2004. He will be assisted against Uzbekistan by Dean Goldfine, who coached 20-year-old Ben Shelton during his quarterfinal run at the Australian Open.

Paul beat Shelton in that round before losing to Novak Djokovic on Friday night.

The other members of the U.S. roster are Denis Kudla, Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek. Kudla replaces Jenson Brooksby on the team.

The matches will be played on indoor hard courts on Feb. 3-4.