Ash Barty back with a tournament win; Russia wins ATP Cup final

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Ash Barty didn’t play competitive tennis in almost a year. It seems like she didn’t miss a beat.

Top-ranked Barty cashed in on her first championship point against Garbine Muguruza in the Yarra Valley Classic and Daniil Medvedev clinched the ATP Cup title for Russia within seconds of each other Sunday as the tuneup tournaments for the Australian Open were culminating the eve of the year’s first major.

After a hectic preparation, which included 14-day quarantines under strict COVID-19 pandemic regulations for the 1,200 or so players, coaches and staff who flew in for the Australian Open, the warmup week of tournaments was being capped with five finals and two semifinals.

Barty kicked it off by claiming her second WTA on home soil – just over a year after her first – with a 7-6 (3), 6-4 win over sixth-seeded Muguruza, the Australian Open runner-up last year.

Barty hasn’t left Australia since the coronavirus outbreak became a global pandemic. Instead of playing the U.S. Open or trying to defend her French Open title, she spent her time practicing, playing golf and doing things like watching her favorite football team win the Australian Football League.

“Absolutely no regrets for me,” Barty said. “I felt like it’s been a challenging 12 months for everyone all across the world. Everyone has been in a very different, unique situation, depending on what country they’re in – even what state here in Australia.

“I feel very fortunate to have had the year that I have had – there was nothing but positive vibes. Now I’m really happy to be back playing tennis with an opportunity to play in front of a crowd here at the Australian Open. It’s really special.”

There were small clusters of spectators at Margaret Court Arena to watch Barty’s final. Still, that’s more of a crowd than most players have been accustomed to seeing at their matches during the pandemic. On Monday, when the Australian Open starts, there’s expected to be up to 30,000 fans at Melbourne Park.

To the crowd on Sunday, Barty said: “For us, this is what makes the magic happen.”

“I’m so grateful you can be here making it extra special for us,” she added. “Seeya next week.”

Muguruza had dropped only 10 games – never more than two in a set – in her previous four straight-set victories at the tournament, including a 6-2, 6-2 quarterfinal win over 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin.

The two-time major winner got the first break of serve to lead 3-1 before Barty broke back. Muguruza broke again and had a chance to serve for the first set, before Barty went on a roll.

The Australian star used her slice backhand and drop shots to keep Muguruza moving around the court, and mixed some powerful forehands with variety – clinching the match with a lob.

Barty will get the day off Monday because the bottom half of the Australian Open women’s draw will be played on the first day, featuring Serena Williams starting another bid for a record 24th Grand Slam singles title, No. 3-ranked Naomi Osaka and No. 2-ranked Simona Halep.

The top half of the men’s draw is set for Monday, with Novak Djokovic starting his quest for a third consecutive Australian Open title with a first-round match against Jeremy Chardy and No. 3-ranked Dominic Thiem, the runner-up here last year, opening against Mikhail Kukushkin.

MERTENS WINS GIPPSLAND

Elise Mertens beat Kaia Kanepi 6-4, 6-1 to win the Gippsland Trophy title, her sixth tour title and second at the WTA 500 level.

The 25-year-old Belgian has won 27 matches since the tour restarted in August, more than any other player on the women’s circuit in that time.

GRAMPIANS TROPHY

The WTA Tour decided not to play a final for the Grampians Trophy because of a lack of time, meaning semifinal winners Anett Kontaveit and Ann Li will get equal points as winners.

The tournament was created for the players who had to go into hard lockdown during quarantine and weren’t allowed out of their hotel rooms for practice. It started Wednesday and a full day of play was lost Thursday because of a temporary suspension of matches in all tournaments after a coronavirus scare.

Kontaveit beat Greece’s Maria Sakkari 6-2, 6-3, 11-9 and Li beat fellow American Jennifer Brady 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5) ,10-6.

RUSSIA WINS ATP CUP

At Rod Laver Arena, No. 4-ranked Daniil Medvedev improved his winning streak to 14 matches and secured Russia’s 2-0 win over Italy in the ATP Cup final when he beat Matteo Berrettini 6-4, 6-2.

Andrey Rublev had given Russia a commanding start with a 6-1, 6-2 win over Fabio Fognini.

Russia didn’t lose a singles match during the group stage or the playoffs, and is the second team to win the ATP Cup after Novak Djokovic led Serbia to the inaugural title last year.

EVANS WINS FIRST TITLE

Dan Evans captured his first ATP title by beating third-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-2, 6-3 in the Murray River Open final.

It was another step on the career ladder for Evans, who wasted three match points the last time he reached a final.

“My team has been there through some not so good times, so thanks for that,” he said.

He is seeded 30th for the Australian Open and will face fellow British player Cameron Norrie in the first round.

The 20-year-old Auger-Aliassime is still seeking his first title, having lost all seven finals he has contested on the ATP tour.

SINNER’S VICTORY

Fourth-seeded Jannik Sinner beat compatriot Stefano Travaglia 7-6 (4), 6-4 to win the Great Ocean Road Open, earning the 19-year-old Italian back-to-back titles on tour following his victory at Sofia late last year.

Sinner was going to have to recover quickly, with a first-round match against No. 11-seeded Denis Shapovalov at the Australian Open on Monday.

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.”

Sonego beats Bublik at Moselle Open to win 1st title of 2022

Winston-Salem Open - Day 5
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METZ, France – Lorenzo Sonego clinched his first title of the season by beating Alexander Bublik 7-6 (3), 6-2 in the Moselle Open final.

The 27-year-old Italian did not drop a set all tournament as he won the third title of his career and first on hard courts.

The unseeded Sonego recovered from 0-40 down in the fifth game of the match and secured victory when the seventh-seeded Bublik sent a backhand return long.

He then danced on court as he celebrated a perfect tournament where he also beat defending champion Hubert Hurkacz in the semifinals.

Sonego’s win will move him up 21 places in the ATP rankings and into 44th place.