Djokovic learned a ‘big lesson’ from U.S. Open default

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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ROME — Novak Djokovic learned “a big lesson” after being disqualified from the U.S. Open for unintentionally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball.

The incident eight days ago marked a stunning end to Djokovic’s 29-match winning streak and his bid for an 18th Grand Slam title.

“I’m working mentally and emotionally as hard as I am working physically,” Djokovic said Monday at the Italian Open. “I’m trying to be the best version of myself on the court and off the court and I understand that I have outbursts and this is kind of the personality and the player that I have always been.

“I’m going to take this in as profound as possible for me as a big lesson. I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve been comprehending. I’ve been talking to my team. It’s just one of these things that is just unfortunate and happens. You have to move on.”

The disqualification came during Djokovic’s fourth-round match against Pablo Carreno Busta.

As he walked to the Arthur Ashe Stadium sideline for a changeover, trailing Carreno Busta 6-5 in the first set, Djokovic – who was seeded and ranked No. 1 and an overwhelming favorite for the championship – angrily smacked a ball behind him. The ball flew right at the line judge, who dropped to her knees at the back of the court and reached for her neck.

“It was totally unexpected and very unintended as well,” Djokovic said. “When you hit a ball like that you have a chance to hit somebody that is on the court. The rules are clear. So I accepted it. I had to move on and that’s what I did.

“Of course I did not forget about it,” Djokovic added. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget about it, because it’s one of those things that stays in your memory for the rest of your life. But I don’t think I’ll have any major issues coming back to the tour and being able to perform well and hit the tennis ball.”

Djokovic said he checked with the lineswoman after the incident and was told she was not seriously injured.

“I felt really sorry to cause the shock and drama to her, because she didn’t deserve that in any way,” Djokovic said. “She obviously is volunteering and doing her work. She loves tennis, and she’s been there, as I understood, for quite a few years.”

Djokovic had won five of the past seven Grand Slam tournaments to raise his total to 17, closing in on rivals Roger Federer, who has a men’s record 20, and Rafael Nadal, who has 19.

Federer (injury) and Nadal (concerns about travel amid the coronavirus pandemic) both did not play at the U.S. Open.

“Sorry for him. He had an opportunity there,” Nadal said. “But in some way you should not be doing this. … It is important to have the right self-control on the court.”

Djokovic has an opening-round bye in Rome. His first match this week will come against either Italian wild-card entry Salvatore Caruso or a qualifier.

The tournament at the Foro Italico was rescheduled from May because of the pandemic and will be played without fans in attendance.

Nadal, who has a record nine titles in Rome, is on the opposite side of the draw from Djokovic. The Spaniard is returning to tennis for the first time since February.

“I am similar to always – maybe a little bit worse because I didn’t compete for the last six months,” Nadal said. “To feel that you’re 100% you need matches.”

Nadal opens against Carreno Busta.

“He’s playing great,” Nadal said. “Going to be a good test.”

Like at the U.S. Open, players are being kept in a protective “bubble” and being tested frequently for the coronavirus. But as opposed to the situation in New York, players are not required to wear masks when they enter and leave the court.

“All of the players have been tested, so that makes total sense,” sixth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas said. “And they don’t have people running around telling you what do and what protocol you have to follow every single minute that you’re in the bubble.

“Plus,” Tsitsipas added, “the accommodation is another level.”

Men’s players are staying at the five-star Rome Cavalieri, which overlooks the city center from a hilltop.

Roger Federer bids farewell in last match before retirement

Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
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LONDON – This day, this match, had to come, of course, for Roger Federer, and for tennis, just as it inevitably must for every athlete in every sport.

Federer was bidding farewell Friday night with one last contest before he heads into retirement at age 41 after an illustrious career that included 20 Grand Slam titles and role as a statesman for tennis. He was scheduled to play a doubles match alongside his rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World.

“For me, just personally, (it was) sad in the first moment, when I came to the conclusion it’s the best decision,” Federer said in an interview with The Associated Press this week about his emotions when realizing it was time to go. “I kind of held it in at first, then fought it off. But I could feel the pain.”

When the players from both squads were introduced before the initial singles matchup of the three-day team event at the O2 Arena, Federer was the last to emerge from a tunnel leading out to the black court, wearing his team’s blue zip-up jacket and black pants. Fans who were loud enough for Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and others really let Federer hear their support and gratitude, rising for a lengthy standing ovation while lifting their phone cameras to capture the moment.

When there were breaks in the action during the matches before his, Federer wandered over to the stands and signed autograph after autograph – on programs, tennis balls, whatever was thrust his way by spectators.

“The crowd was electric,” Sock said after losing the opening singles match Friday afternoon to two-time 2022 Grand Slam runner-up Casper Ruud 6-4, 5-7, 10-7. “I can only imagine what it’s going to be like for the rest of the weekend. And obviously tonight with … two of the `GOATs’ playing together.”

In the second match – which was briefly interrupted when an environmental protester made it on to the court and lit his arm on fire before being carried away by security guards – Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-1 to put Team Europe ahead 2-0.

Those lucky enough to have tickets came from all over, no distance too far to travel, no expense too great.

“I have such mixed feelings about this,” said Indrani Maitra, a 49-year-old from India. “I’m really glad I’m being able to catch his last match. But I’m really sad this is his last match.”

She came with her daughter, Anushka Verma, a 19-year-old student at University of California, Berkeley, for what they said was their first time to watch tennis live. Both wore blue hats for the occasion, Maitra’s with Federer’s “RF” insignia, Verma’s with Nadal’s bull horns logo.

There were lines hundreds of people deep at the “Game, Set, Merch” shops in and outside the venue. Jacob Benaion, a 61-year-old from Brazil, said he waited for more than an hour with his son, 32-year-old Moyses.

“I love tennis. My first favorite was Ivan Lendl. After that, Pete Sampras. And after that, Roger Federer. And Roger Federer is the best one of all,” Benaion said. “He is a legend and he helped tennis grow around the world. He is an ambassador of tennis.”

This goodbye follows that of Serena Williams, the owner of 23 major singles championships, at the U.S. Open three weeks ago after a third-round loss. It leaves questions about the future of a game he and she dominated, and transcended, for decades.

One key difference: Each time Williams took the court in New York, the looming question was how long her stay would endure – a “win or this is it” prospect. Friday IS it for Federer, no matter the result.

The Laver Cup, which is in its fifth edition, was founded by Federer’s management company and uses a format quite different from a standard tournament. So a victory for him and Nadal would not mean advancing to another round.

Instead, Federer made clear that his surgically repaired right knee – the last of three operations came shortly after a loss in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in July 2021, which will go down as his final official singles match – is in no shape to allow him to continue, and he will not compete beyond Friday.

“It will be awesome to see Roger back on court. No one really knows what to expect physically from him, where he’s at, but … we’ll enjoy every minute of it,” Sock said. “Give him a big hug at the end, win or lose.”

Just before Ruud vs. Sock began, Federer rose from a black couch just off the sideline and walked over to offer Ruud a pat on the shoulder.

After his victory, Ruud said about Federer: “All the players will miss him.”

“Roger is a unicorn in our sport,” Tsitsipas said this week. “He has all my respect, all my appreciation for what he has offered to tennis today. It’s something that, for sure, is not going to be forgotten for thousands of years. He has that charisma and purity and aura about him that made him kind of invincible when he was on the court.”

Tiafoe’s take on Federer was similar: “I don’t think we’ll see another guy like Roger, the way he played, and the grace he did it with, and who he is as an individual.”

There have been similar sentiments expressed by many inside the sport and out in the time since Federer made public on Sept. 15 his plan to finish playing at the Laver Cup.

The last hurrah comes after a total of 103 tour-level titles on Federer’s substantial resume and 1,251 wins in singles matches, both second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open era, which began in 1968. Federer’s records include being the oldest No. 1 in ATP rankings history – he returned to the top spot at 36 in 2018 – and most consecutive weeks there (his total weeks mark was eclipsed by Djokovic).

At the height of his powers, Federer appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning eight, from 2005-07. Trace it out to 2010 and he reached 18 of 19 major finals.

More than the numbers, folks will remember that powerful forehand, one-handed backhand and flawless footwork, a spectacularly effective serve and eagerness to get to the net, a willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and – the part he’s proudest of – unusual longevity. Then, too, there is his persona away from the court.

All of which is part of why the truth Friday was that the eventual winner of Federer-Nadal vs. Tiafoe-Sock, the score, the statistics – none of that would matter, was all so entirely beside the point. The day was, after all, about the farewell itself. Or, better, the farewells: Federer’s to tennis, to the fans, to his colleagues. And, naturally, each of those entities’ farewells to Federer.

Federer’s final match comes in doubles alongside rival Nadal

Laver Cup 2022 - Previews
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LONDON – It was quite a collection of tennis luminaries sharing the black indoor hard court for a Laver Cup doubles practice session Thursday, 66 Grand Slam titles among them, a group collectively nicknamed the Big Four: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on one side of the net; Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray on the other.

This team event founded by his management company marks the end of Federer’s career, and his last match will come Friday night alongside longtime rival Nadal for Team Europe against the Team World doubles pairing of Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock.

“I’m not sure if I can handle it all. But I’ll try,” the 41-year-old Federer said about his sure-to-be-emotional on-court farewell after 20 major championships, a total of 103 tournament titles and hundreds of weeks at No. 1 across nearly a quarter of a century as a professional tennis player.

“Sitting here,” Federer said Thursday at a team news conference, with Nadal, who is 36, to his left, and Djokovic and Murray, both 35, a couple of seats down to his right, “it feels good that I go first from the guys. It feels right.”

Federer is ending his playing days following a series of operations on his right knee. He hasn’t competed since a quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon to Hubert Hurkacz in July 2021.

In February of this year, when word emerged that Federer would be in London this week, he said Nadal messaged him suggesting they play doubles together again. They teamed up to win a doubles match during the first Laver Cup in 2017.

“I saw him playing on TV before I arrived on tour. I saw him having success on TV, and then (we were) able to create an amazing rivalry together. And on the other hand, something that probably we are very proud of is having a friendly rivalry,” Nadal said Thursday. “Tomorrow is going to be a special thing. Difficult. Going to be difficult to handle everything, especially for Roger, without a doubt. But for me, too. At the end, one of the most important players – if not the most important player – in my tennis career is leaving.”

They played each other in singles 40 times (Nadal won 26), including 14 Grand Slam matchups (Nadal won 10). Nadal came out on top in their classic 2008 Wimbledon final, considered by some the greatest match in history; Federer won their last showdown, in the 2019 semifinals at the All England Club.

“To be part of this historic moment,” Nadal said about Friday, “is going to be something amazing, unforgettable.”

Tiafoe, a 24-year-old American who beat Nadal en route to his first Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open this month, deadpanned: “Yeah, I’m just excited to play two up-and-comers tomorrow.”

Added Tiafoe: “It’s going to be iconic to be a part of that. Both guys are absolute legends. And obviously, (it’s) Roger’s last dance.”

The full lineup for Day 1 of the three-day Laver Cup was announced Thursday.

The singles matches will be Sock against two-time 2022 Grand Slam finalist Casper Ruud of Team Europe, Diego Schwartzman of Team World against 2021 French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas of Team Europe, and Alex de Minaur of Team World against three-time major champion Murray, before the Federer-Nadal doubles match closes the schedule.

Everyone knows what the main event will be: Federer’s goodbye.

“For me,” Murray said, “it feels right seeing him and Rafa on the same side of the net together.”