Novak Djokovic: ‘Makes my heart full’ to see Aussie Open crowd

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MELBOURNE, Australia — It’s been so long since he had a sizeable crowd to play for, the showman in Novak Djokovic just had to come out.

Top-ranked Djokovic began his Australian Open title defense with a clinical, 6-3, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Jeremy Chardy in the closing act of the day 1 program on Rod Laver Arena.

“Makes my heart full to see the crowd in the stadium again,” Djokovic said in post-match interview at the 15,000-seat arena, which was about one-third full. “This is the most people I’ve seen on the tennis court in 12 months. I really … I really, really appreciate your support in coming out tonight.”

He bristled at the suggestion that he’d been frustrated during quarantine, focusing again on the fans.

“I’m just really glad we are free. We’re playing tennis,” he said. “I’m really glad we’re back in Australia. It’s a happy place for us. Happy Slam.”

The total crowd Monday at Melbourne Park was 17,922, including day and night sessions in three zones separated to enhance social-distancing measures. It was well down on the 64,387 fans that crammed onto the grounds on Day 1 of last year’s Australian Open, but way more than any other major since then.

After an austere year for tennis during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a unanimous refrain from players across the day, starting with Naomi Osaka in the opening match on Rod Laver, to Serena and Venus Williams, and to mercurial local favorite Nick Kyrgios, who closed the day on the so-called Peoples’ court: Thanks for coming.

While Djokovic spoke of his “love affair” with the main show court, where he has won eight Australian titles, Kyrgios was closing the day’s program out on the third arena stadium – where polite applause is always secondary to whoops and whistles – with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win over Frederico Silva.

After his first Grand Slam match in a year, Kyrgios told the crowd “it felt normal, to be honest, you guys were going nuts. It was good to see. Let’s hope we can continue it.”

There’s no love lost between Djokovic and Kyrgios, who have been trading verbal barbs for months and added to them this week.

Day 1 concluded with a look at the future of tennis, and 21-year-old, No. 11-seeded Denis Shapovalov finally beat 19-year-old Jannik Sinner 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in a marathon lasting almost four hours on Margaret Court Arena. It ended at 12:49 a.m. local time.

Since losing to Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals of last year’s French Open, Sinner has collected his first two ATP titles – the second of those was the Great Ocean Road Open on Sunday.

The state government is allowing up to 30,000 people per day into Melbourne Park, about 50% of capacity. There were no fans allowed at the U.S. Open, only about 1,000 per day were allowed at Roland Garros and Wimbledon was canceled.

But with the Australian Open starting three weeks later than usual – now it’s outside the summer holidays – and some people still nervous about going out in crowds following a harsh Melbourne lockdown last year, it was a predictably cautious start.

That wasn’t the case at all for Serena Williams, who arrived ready to race to start her bid for a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam singles title.

In a colorful one-legged catsuit she said was inspired by former Olympic champion Florence Griffith Joyner, Williams dropped her opening serve but rebounded to win 10 consecutive games and beat Laura Siegemund 6-1, 6-1.

“Vintage ‘Rena,” she said of her performance. There were no signs of the right shoulder issue that led her to withdraw from the semifinals of a tuneup tournament last week.

Speed was of the essence also for No. 2-ranked Simona Halep and No. 3 Osaka, who each only dropped three games.

U.S. Open champion Osaka beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 6-2, and two-time major winner Halep had a 6-2, 6-1 win over Australian wild-card entry Lizette Cabrera.

Joining them in the second round were No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, French Open winner Iga Swiatek and 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu, returning from 15 months on the sidelines.

Venus Williams, a seven-time major winner, won a Grand Slam match for the first time since 2019.

Playing in her 21st Australian Open, the elder Williams beat Kirsten Flipkens 7-5, 6-2. At 40, Venus is the oldest woman in this year’s draw and just the sixth player in her 40s to compete at the Australian Open.

Two weeks in hard lockdown didn’t help 2016 Australian Open winner Angelique Kerber, who lost to Bernarda Pera.

U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem beat Mikhail Kukushkin in three tough sets in his first match at the tournament since losing last year’s final to Djokovic.

Alexander Zverev, who lost the final to Thiem in New York, lost his temper in the second set and belted his racket into the court. Letting off a little steam worked, and he recovered to beat No. 73-ranked Marcos Giron 6-7 (8), 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-2.

Also advancing were No. 14 Milos Raonic, former champion Stan Wawrinka and Americans Reilly Opelka, Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe, who next plays Djokovic.

Williams’ inspiration was clear when she started her match.

Griffith Joyner was a sprinting and fashion icon in the 1980s, setting world records that still stand for the women’s 100- and 200-meter sprints. She died in 1998, the same year Serena Williams contested her first Australian Open.

“Yeah, I was inspired by Flo-Jo, who was a wonderful track athlete, amazing athlete when I was growing up,” Williams said. “Well, watching her fashion, just always changing, her outfits were always amazing.

“This year we thought of what can we do to keep elevating the Serena Williams on the court.”

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.