Djokovic wins Italian Open: ‘I moved on’ after U.S. Open default

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ROME — For four or five days after being defaulted from the U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic did some serious soul searching.

Then he got back on the tennis court – and since then it’s been fairly straightforward, at least in terms of results.

Dropping only one set all week, Djokovic won his fifth Italian Open title on Monday after beating Diego Schwartzman 7-5, 6-3 in the final, and restored his confidence heading into Roland Garros, which starts in six days.

“I did experience mentally some kind of ups and downs in the first four-five days after that happened. I was in shock,” Djokovic said of the default 15 days ago for unintentionally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball in a fit of anger.

“But I moved on and, really, I never had an issue in my life to move on from something. Regardless how difficult it is I try to take the next day and hope for the best and move on. Having a tournament a week after that happened helped a lot … just because I really wanted to get on the court and just get whatever traces of that – if there’s any – out, and I think I had a really good week.”

The only real issue for Djokovic this past week was his behavior again.

He received warnings from the chair umpire for smashing a racket in the quarterfinals and for foul language in the semifinals.

Still, Djokovic improved to 31-1 this year – with his only loss against Pablo Carreno Busta in the match where he was defaulted. He also passed childhood idol Pete Sampras for the second-most weeks at No. 1 with 287 – and trails only Roger Federer’s 310 weeks in the top spot.

In the women’s final, top-seeded Simona Halep won her first Rome title when 2019 champion Karolina Pliskova retired midway through their match with a left thigh injury.

Halep was leading 6-0, 2-1 when Pliskova stopped playing after just 31 minutes.

The only player to take a set off Djokovic this week was German qualifier Dominik Koepfer in the quarterfinals.

“I don’t think I played my best tennis, to be honest. I don’t want to be arrogant here – of course I’m very, very satisfied and pleased to win a title – but I know that I still have a couple of gears,” Djokovic said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to raise that level for the French, because that’s going to be necessary if I want to go deep in the tournament.

“This gives me even more confidence that is absolutely necessary for a grand slam.”

Against Schwartzman, who was playing his first Masters 1000 final, Djokovic recovered from a 3-0 deficit in the opening set and eventually wore down the steady Argentine to finish off the match in just under two hours – and just before it resumed raining.

With his 36th Masters 1000 title, Djokovic moved one ahead of Rafael Nadal atop the all-time list.

Schwartzman had beaten nine-time Rome champion Nadal in the quarterfinals then edged Denis Shapovalov in a long three-setter in the semifinals. But no player has beaten Nadal and Djokovic in the same tournament since 2016 when Juan Martin del Potro achieved the feat in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Able to run down virtually everything, the 5-foot-7 (170-centimeter) Schwartzman gave Djokovic fits early on, when there was a brief rain shower.

With Schwartzman standing far behind the court, Djokovic began relying heavily on his backhand drop shot, although it took him three efforts into the net until he finally found his range.

The drop shots began to pay off, though, as evidenced when Djokovic won a 19-shot rally to save a break point at 4-4 in the first set with a short ball that set up an easy volley winner.

Earlier, Pliskova had her lower back treated by a trainer after Halep won the first set. Pliskova also had her left thigh taped during the match.

Halep, who lost the 2017 and 2018 Rome finals to Elina Svitolina, extended her perfect record in tennis’ restart to 10-0.

“In 2013 here I started to (reach) the top of world tennis,” Halep – now a two-time Grand Slam champion – said, recalling her surprise run to the semifinals that year. “Since then I started to play really well and finally, after two finals, I could win this title.”

The second-ranked Halep improved to 14-0 overall stretching to February, when she won in Dubai. After the tour’s five-month break because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Romanian returned by winning another trophy in Prague last month. She skipped the U.S. Open because of travel and health concerns.

Players from both finals wore face masks as they picked up their trophies themselves.

Due to the pandemic, a crowd of only 1,000 fans was allowed inside the 10,500-seat Campo Centrale stadium.

The tournament, which was rescheduled from its usual May slot due to the pandemic, also had reduced prize money.

Halep collected a winner’s check of $242,000, down from the $616,000 awarded to Pliskova last year. The men’s prize was reduced even more drastically. Djokovic received $242,000 compared to the $1.1 million Nadal took home last year.

Nakashima takes first ATP Tour title at San Diego

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SAN DIEGO – Brandon Nakashima earned his first ATP Tour victory in his hometown, beating friend and fellow Southern Californian Marcos Giron 6-4, 6-4 in the San Diego Open final.

“It’s super-special, something you dream of, but to have it happen in my hometown with all my friends and family here, it’s a moment I’ll never forget,” said Nakashima, who had two previous finals appearances. “I hope there are many more moments like this to come.”

Nakashima, a 21-year-old who grew up in San Diego and trained extensively at the event’s site as a junior, clinched the opening set in only 30 minutes. The second set, filled with lengthy rallies, took nearly an hour.

Giron, the No. 5 seed and former NCAA title winner from UCLA, wasn’t able to fend off Nakashima’s persistent ground strokes and well-placed serves. Nakashima had eight aces, six in the first set.

Serving at 5-4 in the second set, Nakashima tallied the match’s deciding two points when Giron pushed an easy volley into the net, followed by Nakashima’s second-serve ace.

He earned $93,090, about half of what received for reaching the third round of the U.S. Open in early September.

Nakashima, who was ranked No. 69 on the ATP Tour, moved up to 48, his highest ranking in nearly three years on tour. Despite the loss, Giron moved up to 53 from 58.

Not only was the singles title claimed by an American, the doubles title also taken by an American duo as the second-seeded pair of Nathaniel Lammons and Jackson Withrow defeated Australians Jason Kubler and Luke Saville 7-6 (5), 6-2.

The $612,00 event was held at Barnes Tennis Center, which next hosts the $757,900 WTA 500 San Diego Open, Oct. 8-16. That will feature 16 of the world’s top-ranked 20 women pros, led by No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

Frances Tiafoe lifts Team World to 1st Laver Cup win

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LONDON — The last to arrive, befitting his reputation in the locker room, Frances Tiafoe strutted into the post-match news conference after clinching Team World’s Laver Cup victory over Roger Federer’s star-studded Team Europe and shouted, “Champs are here!”

Then the 24-year-old from Maryland joined his teammates at the table where the silver trophy was resting Sunday night, put down a bottle of water, pulled a Budweiser out of his red jacket and smiled that wide smile of his.

Performing with the same infectious showmanship and crunch-time success he displayed en route to his first Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open earlier this month, Tiafoe staved off four match points and came back to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 1-6, 7-6 (11), 10-8, giving Team World its first triumph in five editions of an event founded by Federer’s management company.

“I don’t like losing,” said Federer, a 20-time major champion whose final match before retirement was a loss alongside Rafael Nadal in doubles against Tiafoe and Jack Sock on Friday night. “It’s not fun. It just leaves not the best taste.”

When Tsitsipas put a forehand into the net to end Sunday’s contest – and the three-day competition – Tiafoe dropped his racket and fell to his back on the court, where teammates piled atop him. After getting on his feet, Tiafoe cupped a hand to his ear, asking spectators for more noise, then pointed to his chest and yelled, “I’m him! I’m him!”

“When it becomes a circus out here, and I’m just using the crowd and acting like a little kid and having a bunch of reactions … I end up playing really well and I start building momentum off it,” Tiafoe said. “I’m able to play and function in that better than my opponents, it seems.”

Using the nickname other players gave Tiafoe to reflect the way he embraces big moments, Team World captain John McEnroe said: “Frances is `Prime Time.’ He loves this stuff.”

McEnroe had been 0-4 while leading his squad against his former playing rival, Team Europe captain Bjorn Borg; both indicated they would be back for the 2023 Laver Cup in Vancouver, but that might be their last go-round.

This one served as a celebration of Federer and the 41-year-old Swiss star’s career.

Tiafoe responded with a quip when asked whether he might owe Federer some form of “I’m sorry” for beating him in his finale or for defeating his team, which also included Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray for a total of 66 major singles titles. That, incidentally, is 66 more than Team World, a collection of 20-somethings (Sock turned 30 on Saturday).

“”I’m not going to apologize to him. He’s got a lot to apologize for after the last 24 years – after beating everybody on the tour,” said Tiafoe, who went 0-3 against Federer in singles head-to-head. “I will say thank you for having me in this amazing event, what he’s done for the game. He’s a class act. Happy to know him, happy to call him a friend, happy to call him a colleague, and best wishes in his second act. But I will not apologize.”

Team Europe entered Sunday at O2 Arena with an 8-4 lead; the first team to 13 points would win.

Each match on Day 3 was worth three points, and Team World went ahead thanks to a pair of victories by Felix Auger-Aliassime, a 22-year-old from Canada. He beat Djokovic 6-3, 7-6 (3), after partnering with Sock to edge Murray and Matteo Berrettini 2-6, 6-3, 10-8 in doubles.

Tiafoe then made it 13-8, but it wasn’t easy.

He went a tournament-record 8-0 in tiebreakers at Flushing Meadows this month and was just as resilient Sunday.

“It’s been a long time that Frances has been playing the big guys close and losing a lot of close battles. It’s great to see lately he’s been winning,” said Taylor Fritz, an American who is the same age as Tiafoe and has known him for years. “It’s about time that he steps up and the matches go the other way. Today was a joke.”

That’s because Tiafoe was a single point from losing to Tsitsipas four times in their second-set tiebreaker, but somehow got through that. Then, at 4-all in the concluding match tiebreaker – first to 10, win by two – Tiafoe sprinted from behind the baseline to near the net and barely got to a drop shot by Tsitsipas, somehow lunging to flick an angled winner.

While most of the 16,365 fans went wild, Tiafoe went around the net and stood still, hands on his hips, relishing the atmosphere.

“We put him in the slot that he was in today for a reason,” said Team World’s Tommy Paul, another 24-year-old American, “and he stepped up for us, big time.”