Halep into French Open 2nd round; Venus, Goffin out

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PARIS — Top-seeded Simona Halep won 10 straight games in beating Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-4, 6-0 to reach the second round of the French Open on Sunday and extend her winning streak to 15 matches.

Halep won on her 29th birthday, but with minimal celebrations planned for the evening since the coronavirus pandemic means players stay locked inside the security bubble of their hotels.

“It was really special day playing on Roland Garros on my birthday,” she said. “I cannot celebrate much because I have to stay in the room, so I will have a bottle of water.”

Wearing thick black leggings and a long-sleeved pink jersey to combat the chilly conditions on Court Philippe Chatrier, the 2018 champion made a series of unforced errors and trailed 4-2.

“I felt the cold. I’m not very happy with the cold in general,” Halep said. “So it was a little bit tough, I struggled.”

But then she found her range, clinching the first set with a hold to love and sealing victory on her first match point when her Spanish opponent clipped a forehand wide.

Halep is ranked second but seeded first at Roland Garros because defending champion Ash Barty skipped coming to Paris because of coronavirus concerns. Halep won titles on clay in Prague and Rome and her winning run – interrupted by the pandemic – dates to February.

She next faces either countrywoman Irina Camelia Begu or Jil Teichmann of Switzerland.

Halep was not alone in wrapping up warm.

Over on Court Suzanne Lenglen, U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka experienced a vastly different temperature to Flushing Meadows only two weeks ago.

The 10th-seeded Azarenka, who beat Danka Kovinic 6-1, 6-2, fumed when match officials didn’t immediately send them back to the locker room during a rain interruption.

“I am going to get frozen,” she complained. “No. I’m not waiting here a couple of minutes because I’m cold. It’s eight degrees, eight degrees, I live in Florida, I am used to hot weather.”

Before walking off court, Azarenka grumbled “it’s ridiculous. It’s too cold … What’s the point? Sitting here like ducks.”

After the match, she said the conditions were risky.

“I think my opponent slipped in the third game, so I think she was also feeling a little bit uncomfortable,” Azarenka said. “Does it increase the risk of players getting injured? Absolutely, I think that it does.”

She next faces Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who won 6-4, 6-4 against American veteran Venus Williams.

“Even on my really good shots she had a lot of amazing replies that just kind of came out of nowhere,” Williams said. “Give her credit to playing an amazing match.”

The 40-year-old Williams exited in the first round at Roland Garros for the third straight year and is 0-3 in Grand Slam tournaments this year following the Australian Open and the U.S. Open. Since the start of 2018, the seven-time Grand Slam champion has lost in the first round in seven of the past 11 major tournaments.

Coronavirus restrictions mean only 1,000 people are allowed per day at the tournament in western Paris.

But only 150 were there to see 11th-seeded David Goffin begin his match against Next Gen ATP Finals champion Jannik Sinner at just after 11 a.m. under the new Chatrier roof.

Goffin, a former quarterfinalist here, was the first seeded player to be knocked out when he lost 7-5, 6-0, 6-3. His countrywoman Elise Mertens – seeded 16th – fared better in beating Margarita Gasparyan 6-2, 6-3.

No. 25 Alex De Minaur also went out in straight sets, losing 7-6 (9), 6-4, 6-0 to 2018 semifinalist Marco Cecchinato.

No. 21 John Isner went through 6-4, 6-1, 6-3 against Elliot Benchetrit and the big-serving American next meets qualifier Sebastian Korda, whose father, Petr, won the 1998 Australian Open and was the runner-up here in 1992. The 20-year-old Korda beat Andreas Seppi of Italy 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.

No. 27 Taylor Fritz relinquished a two-set lead but the American held firm to win 7-5, 7-6 (2), 1-6, 2-6, 6-3 against Tomas Machac.

No. 17 Anett Kontaveit lost 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 to Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia, but No. 20 Maria Sakkari and No. 27 Ekaterina Alexandrova both advanced.

In the pick of Sunday’s later matches, three-time Grand Slam winners Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka were playing on Chatrier in the 21st meeting between the veterans. Wawrinka won here in 2015 and Murray lost the final to Novak Djokovic the following year.

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?”