Wawrinka routs Murray in Slam champ matchup at French Open

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That Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka were back together on Court Philippe Chatrier, all these years and operations later, was something of an accomplishment – not to mention a rare first-round matchup between past Grand Slam champions.

Only one, Wawrinka, played like it.

Having no trouble smacking his one-handed backhand and other strokes through the thick air as the fall-time French Open got going Sunday, the barrel-chested Wawrinka needed just 97 minutes to overwhelm Murray 6-1, 6-3, 6-2.

The six games collected by Murray equaled the fewest he has managed in any of his 237 career Grand Slam matches; that also happened in a loss at Roland Garros in 2014 against 12-time champion Rafael Nadal.

“I’ll need to have a long, hard think,” said Murray, ranked 111th as he works his way back from two hip surgeries, “and try and understand what happened.”

One big problem: He didn’t serve well, putting only 36% of his first serves in play.

Another: He didn’t return particularly well either and won only 25% of points in Wawrinka’s service games.

Murray said those things weren’t related to his artificial hip.

“It’s going to be difficult for me to play the same level as I did before. I mean, I’m 33 now and I was ranked No. 1 in the world, so it’s difficult with all the issues that I have had,” Murray said. “But, yeah, I’ll keep going. Let’s see what the next few months holds, and I reckon I won’t play a match like that between now and the end of the year.”

This was the first time two men with Grand Slam titles – Murray and Wawrinka each own three such trophies – played each other in the first round at Roland Garros since Yevgeny Kafelnikov against Michael Chang in 1999, and at any major tournament since Novak Djokovic faced Juan Carlos Ferrero at Wimbledon in 2012.

Murray and Wawrinka met in the 2017 semifinals in Paris and neither has been quite the same since.

“Many things happened to him,” said the 35-year-old Wawrinka, who is seeded 16th. “To me, also.”

But 2015 French Open champion Wawrinka’s road back from two procedures on his knee has been less arduous than Murray’s journey.

And Wawrinka’s path in Paris continues for at least another match.

VENUS DONE FOR 2020

Venus Williams finished 2020 with an 0-3 record in Grand Slam matches, adding a first-round exit at the French Open to those she had at the Australian Open and U.S. Open.

After her 6-4, 6-4 loss to Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in front of a handful of spectators at Court Simone Mathieu, the 40-year-old Williams said that, no, she would not play again this season – but that, yes, she “definitely” will be back on tour in 2021.

“It’s really just about going back and reevaluating and moving on as quick as possible,” Williams said. “It’s been a very long year of quarantine. Now I’ll get to rest. So I’m looking forward to that.”

She is a seven-time major champion and was the 2002 runner-up at the French Open to her younger sister, Serena. But after a resurgent 2017 – reaching two finals at Grand Slam tournaments and making it to the semifinals at another – the older Williams has not enjoyed much success at her sport’s four most important events.

Dating to the start of 2018, she now has failed to get past the first round in seven of the past 11 Slams.

Schmiedlova plays U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarena in the second round.

And what’s next for Williams?

“I’m going home from here. I’m done,” she said. “If there is somewhere to play, I won’t be there.”

ALL IN THE FAMILY

For Sebastian Korda, sports success is all in the family.

The 20-year-old American’s father, Petr, won the 1998 Australian Open and was the runner-up at the 1992 French Open; his mother, Regina, reached the top 30 in the WTA rankings.

And his older sisters, 27-year-old Jessica and 22-year-old Nelly, both play professional golf and have won LPGA Tour titles.

He said he tries his hand at golf, and they occasionally pick up a tennis racket.

“I mean, my only claim to fame is the only (golf) tournament I ever played, I won, and I beat my sisters, when I was like 11 years old,” Korda said Sunday, “so, yeah, they will never live that one down.”

Korda is making a name for himself now, earning his first main-draw match win at a Grand Slam tournament by beating Andreas Seppi of Italy 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 after qualifying for the French Open.

“My dad is a really big help. He oversees everything. He doesn’t really travel with me that much, but we’re always in contact and whenever I’m home, we’re always on the court together,” said the Florida-based Korda, who won the 2018 Australian Open junior title. “I don’t think I would be anywhere near where I am right now without him.”

Korda tweaked his back during the first-round victory but said he thinks he’ll be fine for what’s next: an all-American matchup against John Isner.

Playing his first clay-court match anywhere in 2+ years, the 21st-seeded Isner advanced with a 6-4, 6-1, 6-3 win over Elliot Benchetrit.

“He’s a great hope for American tennis. I’m very happy to be playing him next round, because in five years’ time, I won’t be playing, and he’ll be right in the prime of his career,” the 35-year-old Isner said about Korda. “To be able to say we squared off against each other, I think, is pretty cool. Him and I get along very well.”

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?”