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.

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.

And if she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top of tennis.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam title match at age 24 by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she has contested this season.

More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt by a 6-4 score in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners, but also compiled more unforced errors – including a trio that led to a break at love by Linette in the opening game.

The key to both semifinals turned out to be a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, for the most part, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.

“In the tiebreaker, I really found my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Started trusting myself. Started going for my shots.”

Rybakina’s win over Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. She also beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – both owners of major titles – and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”

She delivered serves at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will on Thursday. Her performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are rather misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow; she switched to Kazakhstan in 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That had a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand – and then ceding it just as quickly. Both found the conditions slowed down the tennis balls.

“Kind of misjudged a lot of balls,” Azarenka said.

Rybakina encountered similar issues and her occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point at 5-3 with a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot, wound up taking the game with a backhand she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set belonged to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they competed for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”

Paul, McDonald on US Davis Cup team; Nainkin interim captain

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul and the player who eliminated Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park, Mackenzie McDonald, are among the players picked by interim captain David Nainkin for the U.S. Davis Cup team’s matches at Uzbekistan next week.

Nainkin’s appointment was announced Friday, three weeks after Mardy Fish’s tenure as captain ended.

Nainkin has been with the U.S. Tennis Association since 2004. He will be assisted against Uzbekistan by Dean Goldfine, who coached 20-year-old Ben Shelton during his quarterfinal run at the Australian Open.

Paul beat Shelton in that round before losing to Novak Djokovic on Friday night.

The other members of the U.S. roster are Denis Kudla, Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek. Kudla replaces Jenson Brooksby on the team.

The matches will be played on indoor hard courts on Feb. 3-4.