Serena Williams uses perfect tiebreaker to avoid loss in NYC

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK — Her yells of “Come on!” filling a stadium devoid of spectators, Serena Williams was pushed to the brink of a stunning loss in her longest match since 2012 before pulling away with a perfect tiebreaker and edging Arantxa Rus 7-6 (6), 3-6, 7-6 (0) Monday at the Western & Southern Open.

“I had a crowd in my head or something,” Williams said with a laugh. “For me, it was like there was a crowd there.”

Rus is a Dutch qualifier ranked No. 72 whose flat, left-handed strokes from the baseline gave Williams some trouble. Williams dropped four games in a row in the second set, then did so again in the third, when she fell behind 6-5.

Rus served for the match there and, at deuce, was two points from victory.

She wouldn’t win another point. A double-fault gave Williams a break chance, and an errant groundstroke sent the match to the concluding tiebreaker.

Showing the strokes and grit that carried her to 23 Grand Slam titles – against an opponent who has never won so much as one tour-level singles title of any sort – Williams ran away with it, ending the 2-hour, 48-minute match with a forehand, celebrating most points with a yell and a clenched left fist.

Williams hadn’t spent that much time on a court since the 2012 French Open, when she lost in the first round to Virginie Razzano in 3 hours, 3 minutes. That was Williams’ only career first-round exit at a Grand Slam tournament.

“I did hit a wall today in the second set, I was so hot. That never happens,” the 38-year-old American said. “So I think physically, I’m fit. Tennis is mental. You know, it’s all mental.”

The Western & Southern Open normally is held in Ohio but was moved to the site of the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The two hard-court tournaments are forming an unusual doubleheader with no fans; the U.S. Open starts Aug. 31.

After losses Sunday by No. 1 seed Karolina Pliskova and No. 2 Sofia Kenin, it appeared No. 3 Williams and No. 4 Naomi Osaka might join them.

But Osaka, who beat Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open final, used 12 aces to get through 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-2 against Karolina Muchova. And Williams moved into the third round thanks in part to 14 aces – one at 121 mph.

Next for Williams is No. 13 Maria Sakkari, a 6-4, 7-6 (9) winner against Yulia Putintseva on Monday after beating 16-year-old Coco Gauff in the first round. Sakkari, who is Greek, figured it might work to her advantage to have a quiet setting, because if there were a crowd of thousands when she plays Serena, it would break down along these lines: “99% with her, 1% with me.”

No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, did join the list of early exits with a 2-6, 7-5, 6-2 loss to 48th-ranked Marie Bouzkova.

While No. 1 Novak Djokovic was scheduled to play in the evening, and No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev began the defense of his 2019 Western & Southern Open title with a straight-set victory, another past champion, Andy Murray, moved on 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 with the help of No. 5 Alexander Zverev’s 11 double-faults. That included five in his last two service games.

Reilly Opelka – at 6-foot-11, he’s 16 inches taller than Monday’s opponent — eliminated No. 9 seed Diego Scwartzman 6-3, 7-6 (4), and Tennys Sandgren came back for a 6-7 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (5) victory over No. 15 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, who accumulated 15 double-faults.

No. 16 John Isner hit 35 aces and won 4-6, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5) despite never breaking John Millman’s serve.

Djokovic to start 2023 in Adelaide ahead of Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic will open his 2023 campaign in Adelaide as he prepares for a shot at a 10th Australian Open crown a year after having his visa revoked on the eve of his title defense.

The 21-time major winner has been granted a visa by the Australian government and has been listed to play at the Adelaide International, which starts Jan. 1.

Serbia isn’t contesting the inaugural United Cup team competition, leaving Djokovic free to play regular warmup tournaments head of the Jan. 16-29 Australian Open.

He’ll be joined in the men’s draw at Adelaide by Russians Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada and Andy Murray.

Ons Jabeur, Aryna Sabalenka will headline the women’s draw.

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles last month confirmed Djokovic had been granted a visa to compete in Australia in January. The 35-year-old Serbian had been facing a possible three-year ban after being deported last January over his stance against COVID-19 vaccination.

Djokovic has won the Australian Open a record nine times, including the last three times he played. Rafael Nadal won this year’s title in Djokovic’s absence.

Djokovic was not vaccinated against COVID-19 when he arrived in Melbourne ahead of the 2022 tournament, but Australia has since lifted strict rules for unvaccinated travelers.

Karolina Pliskova reuniting with Sascha Bajin

Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
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Two-time Grand Slam finalist Karolina Pliskova is reuniting with coach Sascha Bajin ahead of the 2023 season.

Pliskova posted on her website and her Twitter account about the move, which comes about six months after she and Bajin stopped working together. The pair originally teamed up in November 2020.

While Bajin was her coach, Pliskova reached the final at Wimbledon in 2021 before losing to champion Ash Barty. Pliskova also was the runner-up at the 2016 U.S. Open, where she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals before being beat by Angelique Kerber for the trophy.

After splitting from Bajin in July, Pliskova was coached by Leos Friedl. Their results together included a quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open.

Bajin has worked as a coach or hitting partner with several top tennis players, including Grand Slam title winners Williams, Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki.

“Thank you for having me back,” Bajin wrote on Twitter. “Let’s go get it.”

Pliskova is a 30-year-old from the Czech Republic who reached No. 1 in the WTA rankings in 2017 and finished this season at No. 31 after going 21-21 with no titles.

Her team also includes fitness specialist Jez Green and physiotherapist Martin Salvador.

Next year’s first Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open, begins Jan. 16.