Palermo sets example for return of tour-level tennis

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ROME — The only player who tested positive for the coronavirus was withdrawn from the tournament without ever setting foot at the venue.

Another player was admonished for venturing outside the event bubble and posting a selfie on social media showing her posing in front of a downtown fountain.

Former French Open finalist Sara Errani and Slovenian qualifier Kaja Juvan received verbal warnings from the chair umpire for throwing their wristbands and a visor to kids in the crowd following victories.

Local organizers and the WTA Tour have been vigilant about abiding by strict health protocols in order to hold this week’s Palermo Ladies Open, the first tour-level tennis tournament for men or women in five months.

“If this was the way all European citizens were being checked, the coronavirus would no longer be a problem,” tournament director Oliviero Palma told The Associated Press in an phone interview before Friday’s quarterfinal matches.

“We’re showing that it’s possible to restart,” Palma added. “I think this experience can be repeated anywhere. The important thing is to follow the protocols very carefully.”

The protocols require players and staff members to be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival and then again every four days; players to handle their own towels; only three ball collectors per court and all of them at least 18 years old; players to wear masks as they enter and leave the court; and all media interviews to be conducted electronically.

“It definitely is different,” said fourth-seeded Anett Kontaveit. “I literally haven’t left the hotel to go anywhere but the court. . That’s what the situation needs right now.”

Players will encounter a similar, albeit on a much larger scale, bubble atmosphere at the upcoming U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 31 and will be preceded by a warmup tournament at the same venue in New York.

“It’s going to be a lot longer in the States,” Kontaveit said of the bubble. “The key is just to find something to do and keep yourself entertained as much as you can.”

As the first tournament back, Palermo has served as a test for the events that follow. For example, there was already a change in shower protocols.

Whereas initially players and coaches were told to bathe only at the hotel, organizers quickly changed the rule when they realized that putting sweaty players into tournament cars could be unhealthy and unsanitary.

Players and coaches can now shower at the venue in different locker rooms. Only two people can enter any locker room at the same time.

“Obviously nobody can have a police officer hovering over their shoulder 24 hours a day, because that’s impossible,” Errani said. “But if we’re all able to be responsible and handle ourselves well we can move forward.

“If everyone starts to go off doing crazy things and doing whatever they want,” Errani added. “That’s when the problems start.”

In June, top-ranked Novak Djokovic and several other players tested positive for the virus after playing in a series of exhibition matches he organized in Serbia and Croatia with zero social distancing.

“As the first tournament back, Palermo has done a great job. The safety element is there,” said Italian player Jasmine Paolini. “Let’s hope we can continue like this without glitches in other tournaments.”

When an unnamed player tested positive on the first day of qualifying last weekend, she was immediately moved to a facility designated for asymptomatic patients with COVID-19. Then once she returned consecutive positive tests, she was sent home.

“It was caught right away. It means that the tests work and the protocol is correct,” Palma said. “I would have been worried if we hadn’t discovered anything immediately and found out later.

“That’s the whole point of the tests: to intercept a positive before it can create any damage.”

Likewise, Errani and Juvan were spoken to by the umpire after throwing items including a visor and wristbands to the crowd, which is being limited to less than 300 spectators per day.

“I understand their concern but it was actually like an instinct,” Juvan said after upsetting second-seeded Marketa Vondrousova. “Maybe I won’t do it the next few days.”

The next WTA tournament in Europe will be held in Prague next week.

“A large part of the players are coming from Palermo,” Palma said. “So they’re going there negative, which gives Prague a head start.”

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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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.”