Zverev tops Nadal, sets up Paris Masters final vs. Medvedev

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PARIS — Alexander Zverev advanced to the Paris Masters final for the first time by beating top-seeded Rafael Nadal 6-4, 7-5 on Saturday, denying Nadal the chance to win a tournament that continues to elude him.

The fourth-seeded Zverev faces No. 3 Daniil Medvedev in Sunday’s final, and leads him 5-1 in career meetings. Zverev goes for his fourth Masters title and 14th overall, while 2019 U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev is seeking his third Masters crown, eighth career title and first of this year.

“We’re not going to give each other anything tomorrow and we’ll see who can win. I’m looking forward to it,” Zverev said. “I think we are both extremely hungry, it will be our first title here.”

All of the semifinalists stood to win this tournament for the first time, but it won’t be Nadal.

Although he has won 86 titles in his glittering career, including a record-equaling 20 Grand Slams and 35 Masters events, he lost his only final here in 2007 to David Nalbandian.

Serving for the match at an empty Bercy Arena because of the coronavirus pandemic, the imposing Zverev opened with his 13th ace.

He double-faulted on his first match point at 40-0. But on the next one, Nadal’s forehand down the line went wide to give the 23-year-old German only his second win in seven matches against the Spanish veteran.

“I have just beaten Rafa, so that is never easy to do,” Zverev said. “I think the whole world will agree with me on that.”

Nadal was broken to love in the third game and dropped the opening set for the third time in his four matches. Zverev won 78% of points on first serve compared to 60% for Nadal and led 9-1 in aces in that set. He clinched it with a sliced shot at the net which Nadal could not reach.

“He’s in the final serving huge. I think I returned better than the other days, but was impossible at the beginning. He was serving bombs and hitting the right spots all the time,” Nadal said. “So I decided to go eight meters behind the baseline later on in the match and I think worked better for me.”

Zverev broke Nadal again in the third game of the second set.

A frustrated Nadal punched his racket head when he failed to convert two break points in the sixth game, but held his nerve to save four break points in the next game and then finally broke Zverev to make it 4-4.

But an erratic and agitated Nadal was conceding too many chances on his serve and, after Zverev broke him for a third time, he sat shaking his head during the changeover.

Earlier, Medvedev reached the Paris Masters final for the first time after beating Milos Raonic 6-4, 7-6 (4) in a contest between big servers. He secured the win with a smash at the net.

The 10th-seeded Raonic has never won a Masters event and missed out on a second final here, having lost to Novak Djokovic in 2014. The Canadian had 12 aces compared to seven for Medvedev and both players won around 80% of their points on first serves.

“I don’t think it was the best tennis I have played this year, but it was definitely one of the best matches,” Medvedev said. “I was playing good in the beginning of the year, and then there was a stop (because of the pandemic).”

Raonic missed a chance in the second set when Medvedev saved three break points at 0-40 down in the eighth game, but Raonic finally broke him on his fourth break point in the 12th game to make it 6-6.

“I think in some key moments he found a way to be a bit more the aggressor. He was dictating a bit more, I was trying to change the pace up,” Raonic said. “He was a lot more efficient at creating his opportunities.”

Medvedev raced into a 4-0 lead in the tiebreaker and sealed victory on his first match point.

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?”