Nadal beaten by Schwartzman in 1st tournament in 7 months

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ROME — Rafael Nadal’s first tournament in seven months ended with a 6-2, 7-5 loss to Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open on Saturday.

Nadal, a nine-time champion in Rome, had never lost to the 15th-ranked Schwartzman in nine previous meetings. But Schwartzman dictated the baseline rallies and produced a series of drop-shot winners as Nadal uncharacteristically made unforced errors and struggled to get his first serve into play.

For two months during the lockdown, Nadal said, he didn’t touch a tennis racket.

“It’s a completely special year — an unpredictable year,” Nadal said. “At least I played three matches.”

While Nadal won his opening two matches this week in straight sets, his rustiness showed from the start against Schwartzman.

Nadal committed nearly twice as many unforced errors as Schwartzman, 30 to 17, and won only 29 of 63 points on his serve — resulting in five breaks.

“Losing that many serves you can’t expect to win a match,” Nadal said. “So something that I have to fix. I know how to do it.”

Nadal, who chose not to play the U.S. Open due to travel concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, had not played a tournament since winning a title in Acapulco, Mexico, in February. He now has one week to regroup before he attempts to win a record-extending 13th French Open title.

Roland Garros starts next weekend.

“I’m going to keep working and keep practicing with the right attitude and I’m going to try to give (myself) a chance to be ready,” Nadal said.

Schwartzman came up with a series of clutch shots, perhaps none better than during the second game of the second set when he won a 17-shot rally to save a break point by running down a drop shot and passing Nadal with a forehand that landed on the line.

“It was my best match ever,” Schwartzman said.

Nadal suggested he struggled with the humidity on a warm evening.

“Conditions out there was much heavier than the previous days in terms of the bounces of the ball,” Nadal said. “Was difficult to push him back. He did a great job.”

Earlier, Novak Djokovic lost his cool again midway through a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 win over German qualifier Dominik Koepfer – less than two weeks after getting defaulted from the U.S. Open.

When Djokovic was broken at love to even the second set at 3-3, he slammed his racket to the red clay in anger.

With the frame broken and the strings all mangled, Djokovic was forced to get a new racket and received a warning from the chair umpire.

“It’s not the first nor the last racket that I’ll break in my career,” Djokovic said. “I’ve done it before and I’ll probably do it again. I don’t want to do it but when it comes, it happens.

“That’s how, I guess, I release sometimes my anger and it’s definitely not the best message out there, especially for the young tennis players looking at me, and I don’t encourage that — definitely.”

The top-ranked Djokovic was thrown out of the U.S. Open for unintentionally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball in a fit of anger.

At the Foro Italico, Djokovic had already appeared frustrated during the game before he broke his racket, glaring toward the umpire following a couple of overrules and a point that was ordered to be replayed.

“That’s just me,” Djokovic said. “Of course I’m not perfect and I’m doing my best.”

The 97th-ranked Koepfer, who screamed at himself in frustration throughout the match, was also warned for misbehavior early in the third set.

Aiming for his fifth title in Rome, Djokovic’s semifinal opponent will be Casper Ruud, who eliminated local favorite Matteo Berrettini 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) in a match that lasted 2 hours, 57 minutes.

Schwartzman will next face Denis Shapovalov, who held off Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 3-6, 6-2.

While fans have not been admitted to the tournament yet, Italy’s sports minister said Friday that 1,000 spectators will be allowed in for the semifinals and finals.

In the women’s tournament, top-seeded Simona Halep reached the last four when Kazakh opponent Yulia Putintseva retired midway through their match due to a lower back injury.

Halep was ahead 6-2, 2-0 when Putintseva decided she was in too much pain to continue — having already taken an off-court medical timeout between sets.

Halep, who lost two straight finals in Rome to Elina Svitolina in 2017 and 2018, will need to beat two-time Grand Slam winner Garbine Muguruza to return to the championship match.

Muguruza required more than two hours to eliminate U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

The other semifinal will feature last year’s French Open runner-up Marketa Vondrousova against fellow Czech and defending champion Karolina Pliskova.

Vondrousova beat Svitolina 6-3, 6-0, and Pliskova defeated Elise Mertens 6-3, 3-6, 6-0.

Australian Open director: Novak Djokovic’s hamstring had 3-cm tear

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said Novak Djokovic played at the Grand Slam event with a muscle tear of 3 centimeters – a little more than an inch – in his left hamstring along the way to winning the championship.

“He gets a bad rap, but at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone can question his athleticism. This guy, I did see, he had a 3-centimeter tear in his hammy,” Tiley said in an interview.

“The doctors are … going to tell you the truth,” Tiley said. “I think there was a lot of speculation of whether it was true or not. It’s hard to believe that someone can do what they do with those types of injuries. But he’s remarkable.”

Djokovic won the trophy at Melbourne Park by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets for a record-extending 10th title there and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam trophy overall. Rafael Nadal is the only other man who has won that many majors.

The triumph also allowed Djokovic to return to No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

The 35-year-old from Serbia hurt his hamstring during a tune-up tournament in Adelaide ahead of the Australian Open. He wore a heavy bandage on his left thigh and was visited by trainers during matches in Week 1 in Melbourne.

He said he took “a lot” of painkiller pills and did various treatments to help the leg.

“Let me put it like this: I don’t say 100%, but 97% of the players, when you get results of the MRI, you go straight to the referee’s office and pull out of the tournament,” Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said after the final. “But not him. … His brain is working different.”

Aryna Sabalenka wins 1st Grand Slam title at Australian Open

2023 Australian Open - Day 13
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MELBOURNE, Australia – One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself – and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.’ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

“I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions,” she said, “and win this one.”

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy – she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check – she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now – is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph (195 kph), Sabalenka’s at 119 mph (192 kph).

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”