WTA players adjust to new normal in first event since March

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Marie Bouzkova expected some adjustments for her first tennis tournament in nearly six months.

First was the matter of shedding rust from the layoff caused by the coronavirus shutdown. The Czech Republic player also had to get her mind around a significantly subdued competitive atmosphere without spectators at the inaugural Top Seed Open, where there were just a sprinkling of officials around center court.

“The beginning felt like practice because my coach was clapping at some point,” said Bouzkova, who quickly adapted to upset No. 3 seed Johonna Konta, 6-4, 6-4 on Monday. “But that quiet was a little bit weird.”

Say hello to the new normal players will see for the foreseeable future because of the pandemic.

This week’s event is the WTA Tour’s first U.S. competition since the shutdown. Added to the schedule in late July, the world’s top players such as Serena and Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens aim to hone their hard-court skills for the U.S. Open later this month. The Williams sisters are slated to start playing Tuesday.

Social distancing precautions were in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Players were at opposite ends of the court, of course, and the benches were spaced six feet away on either side of the umpire’s chair. Masks were prevalent as well.

“The only time that we’re not wearing a mask is obviously on the court,” Bouzkova said, adding that players are in a similar bubble at their hotel. “When you’re here walking inside, you’re wearing the mask the whole time.”

Konta donned a mask during one nervous moment in which she required medical attention for heart palpitations. The British player acknowledged previous episodes but said they eventually subside before she resumes play.

“I’m not worried at all,” Konta said.

Players praised conditions at the Top Seed Tennis Club outside Lexington, where seating resembled more of a country club than a tennis stadium. Cushioned lounge chairs lined center court, though few were occupied with competition just starting.

A smattering of claps replaced the usual loud applause on points, though players’ grunts on returns seemed more amplified. In a way, that seemed to be the perfect place to regain competitive focus after time away.

“Obviously, we’ve played a lot of matches with a lot of people watching, big stadiums,” Konta said. “But we’ve also played a lot of matches with nobody watching, whether it’s late-night matches or just the region we’re in.

“It still felt like a match should, but it also felt like I haven’t played a WTA event in six months. It’s kind of finding your feet again and finding that space and being able to compete well.”

Other seeds advanced past Americans on Monday as No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus outlasted Madison Brengle, 6-1, 7-6 (5), 6-2; No. 6 Magda Linette of Poland ousted Lauren Davis, 6-2, 6-3; and No. 8 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia topped wild card Catherine McNally 6-2, 6-4.

Two unseeded Americans moved on as Jennifer Brady topped Britain’s Heather Watson, 6-2, 6-1; and Jessica Pegula got past Russian wild card Vera Zvonareva, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4.

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

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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.”