Serena and Venus will play each other at Top Seed Open

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Serena Williams was calm in a return more dramatic than some might have expected – even after a long layoff.

Williams needed to rally to win in her comeback following a six-month layoff, beating unseeded American Bernarda Pera 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in Tuesday’s first round of the Top Seed Open.

Williams advanced to a second-round showdown on Thursday against older sister Venus, who dispatched Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 6-2. The two will meet for the 31st time in a match that figures to be emotionally and physically challenging for both of them.

“From one Grand Slam (winner), one No. 1 to another,” said Venus Williams, who’s 12-18 against her sister. “It’s been quite the draw for me but, honestly, it’s perfect because I don’t play forever so I want to play the best players. And I think I got my wish. Here we go.”

Serena first had to clear some athletic hurdles against Pera in the opening match at center court.

Looking to return to form following the break caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the 23-time Grand Slam champion labored to avoid her 14th loss to an opponent ranked outside the top 50. The ninth-ranked Williams quickly struggled after a promising start as Pera, ranked No. 60, broke her at love in the fifth game on the way to a first-set victory.

The tournament’s top seed positioned herself to even the match to break Pera for a 3-1 lead in the second set before Pera answered with a break in the next game. The Croatian-born Pera eventually evened the set and had Williams down 0-40 at 4-4 before the 38-year-old Williams rallied to stay on serve.

“I just knew I needed to be better,” Williams said. “I knew I could be better. And it was an interesting game. She had so many winners and (was) so low. I just had to kind of get used to a game a little bit. She played really well.”

Williams needed another rally to win the next game before getting a hard-earned break to force a third set. She bore down from there to break Pera at 3-1, then gutted out the next game at deuce and sealed the match with another break.

Williams took 2 hours, 16 minutes to make it to another day at an event where players hope to polish their hard-court skills for this month’s U.S. Open in New York. She was especially excited to get going after the long layoff and advanced by remaining composed under stress.

Williams hadn’t played since splitting two Fed Cup matches in February but used the down time to begin building a gym and training on a court built by her husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. Williams arrived looking cut and ready to begin preparation for the Open.

Pera wasn’t awed by Williams’ stellar resume or power in their first meeting. The left-hander broke Williams at love for a 3-2 edge on the way to taking the first set. Williams appeared to turn her left ankle slightly and she fell backward on one return, losing the point and the next game.

She had other stumbles but managed to regain her footing – and her serve.

Venus Williams had a much easier time against Azarenka on a star-studded Tuesday. The seven-time Slam champ led 4-0 in the second before splitting the final four games to earn her first victory in four tries this year.

Up-and-coming Coco Gauff, 16, moved on to the next round by beating Caroline Dolehide, 7-5, 7-5.

“I played pretty freely today and it didn’t turn out too bad,” said Gauff, who acknowledged some pre-match nerves.

Seventh-seeded Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champ, lost to Canadian qualifier Leylah Fernandez, 6-3, 6-3.

In other matches, Catherine Bellis beat fellow American Francesca di Lorenzo, a last-minute replacement for fourth-seeded Russian Amanda Anisimova, 6-1, 6-2. Anisimova withdrew Tuesday morning with an injured right shoulder.

Fifth-seeded Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan cruised past Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, 6-0, 6-4. Switzerland’s Jill Teichmann ousted Russian qualifier Anna Kalinskaya, 6-2, 7-5. And Anna Blinkova of Russia topped American Kristie Ahn 6-2, 4-6, 3-1 (retired).

Paul, McDonald give U.S. 2-0 lead over Uzbekistan in Davis Cup

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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LONDON – Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul and Mackenzie McDonald, who beat Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park, gave the United States a 2-0 lead over host Uzbekistan in Davis Cup qualifying.

Paul beat Khumoyun Sultanov 6-1, 7-6 (6) after McDonald’s Davis Cup debut produced a 6-4, 6-1 victory over Sergey Fomin on an indoor hard court in Tashkent.

The best-of-five-match series finishes with one match in doubles followed by two in singles. The Americans can clinch a spot in the group stage of the Davis Cup Finals if Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek defeat Fomin and Sanjar Fayziev in doubles.

“A sweep would be nice,” Paul said. “Bring out the broomsticks.”

Paul moved into the top 20 in the ATP rankings for the first time this week by reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal in Australia, where he lost to eventual champion Novak Djokovic. McDonald eliminated 22-time Grand Slam champion Nadal in the second round at the year’s first Grand Slam tournament.

David Nainkin is serving as interim captain for the United States, replacing Mardy Fish.

There are 12 qualifiers being held this weekend with the winners of each advancing to the Davis Cup Finals group stage in September, along with reigning champion Canada, 2022 runner-up Australia and wild-card recipients Italy and Spain.

Eight teams will then advance to the closing matches of the Davis Cup Finals scheduled for Nov. 21-26 in Malaga, Spain.

Nick Kyrgios pleads guilty to assault, has no conviction recorded

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CANBERRA, Australia — Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios apologized for shoving a former girlfriend to the ground two years ago after he escaped conviction on a charge of common assault.

The 2022 Wimbledon runner-up pleaded guilty in the Australian Capital Territory Magistrates Court to assaulting Chiara Passari during an argument in his hometown of Canberra in January 2021.

Magistrate Beth Campbell did not record a conviction against Kyrgios for reasons including that the offense was at the low end of seriousness for a common assault, was not premeditated and he had no criminal record.

Kyrgios, who was using crutches following recent surgery on his left knee, ignored reporters’ questions as he left court but issued a statement through a management company.

“I respect today’s ruling and am grateful to the court for dismissing the charges without conviction,” Kyrgios said. “I was not in a good place when this took place and I reacted to a difficult situation in a way I deeply regret. I know it wasn’t OK and I’m sincerely sorry for the hurt I caused.

“Mental health is tough. Life can seem overwhelming. But I’ve found that getting help and working on myself has helped me to feel better and to be better,” he added.

The only media question he responded to as he was about to be driven away from the court was: “what’s next for Nick Kyrgios?”

“Just recovery and get back on court,” Kyrgios replied.

Campbell described the shove as an act of “stupidity” and “frustration.”

She assured him his celebrity was not a factor in him avoiding a criminal record.

“You’re a young man who happens to hit the tennis ball particularly well and your name is widely recognised outside this court room,” Campbell told Kyrgrios.

“I deal with you exactly the same way as any young man in this court.”

Kyrgios’ psychologist, Sam Borenstein, said in a written report and testimony by phone that Kyrgios had suffered major depressive episodes around the time of the assault and had used alcohol and drugs to cope. Kyrgios’ mental health led to impulsive and reckless behavior.

His recent knee injury had resulted in mild to moderate symptoms of depression, but his mental health was improving, Borenstein said.

“He’s doing very well,” Borenstein said. “His mental health has improved significantly.”

“Given the history, he is still vulnerable to recurrent episodes of depression depending on life circumstances,” Borenstein added.

Lawyers for Kyrgios had sought to have charge dismissed on mental health grounds but the application was unsuccessful.

In arguing against a conviction being recorded, defense lawyer Michael Kukulies-Smith cited the opinion of Kyrgios’s manager of a “strong likelihood of sanctions and impact upon sponsorship” from a conviction. Kyrgios had faced a potential maximum 2-year prison sentence if convicted.

The assault occurred when Kyrgios had been attempting to leave Passari during an argument late Jan. 10, 2021, outside her apartment in the inner-Canberra suburb of Kingston.

He called an Uber but Passari stood in the way of him closing the front passenger door. The driver wouldn’t leave with the door open.

Kyrgios eventually pushed Passari’s shoulders backward with open palms, causing her to fall to the pavement and graze her knee, according to agreed facts read to the court.

Passari signed a police statement alleging the assault 11 months later, after her relationship with Kyrgios had ended.

His current partner, Costeen Hatzi, wrote in a character reference that she had no concerns of such violence in her relationship. Hatzi was among Kyrgios’ supporters who sat behind him in court.

Kyrgios, wearing a dark suit and using the crutches for support, first spoke in court when the magistrate asked him if he could stand to enter a plea.

Kyrgios replied: “Yep, no worries, Your Honor,” as he rose to plead guilty.

In February last year, Kyrgios opened up about his performance at the 2019 Australian Open, saying what appeared to be a positive time in his life had been “one of my darkest periods.”

“I was lonely, depressed, negative, abusing alcohol, drugs, pushed away family and friends,” he wrote on Instagram. “I felt as if I couldn’t talk or trust anyone. This was a result of not opening up and refusing to lean on my loved ones and simply just push myself little by little to be positive.”

Kyrgios made further references to his mental health struggles during his runs last year to the final at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open.

After ending Daniil Medvedev’s U.S. Open title defense last September to reach the quarterfinals, Kyrgios expressed pride at lifting himself out of “some really tough situations, mentally” and “some really scary places” off the court.

The 27-year-old Kyrgios had a career setback last month when he withdrew from the Australian Open because the knee injury which later required arthroscopic surgery.