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.”

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?”

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.

And if she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top of tennis.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam title match at age 24 by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she has contested this season.

More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt by a 6-4 score in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners, but also compiled more unforced errors – including a trio that led to a break at love by Linette in the opening game.

The key to both semifinals turned out to be a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, for the most part, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.

“In the tiebreaker, I really found my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Started trusting myself. Started going for my shots.”

Rybakina’s win over Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. She also beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – both owners of major titles – and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”

She delivered serves at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will on Thursday. Her performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are rather misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow; she switched to Kazakhstan in 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That had a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand – and then ceding it just as quickly. Both found the conditions slowed down the tennis balls.

“Kind of misjudged a lot of balls,” Azarenka said.

Rybakina encountered similar issues and her occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point at 5-3 with a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot, wound up taking the game with a backhand she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set belonged to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they competed for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”