Nadal, Barty advance in straight sets at Australia Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Facing a break point late in the third set, Rafael Nadal sprinted to his left and hit a running forehand winner from way out wide.

A slow-motion fist pump was a very subdued celebration by his standards. The 20-time major champion wasn’t going to let the lingering back soreness that bothered him ahead of the Australian Open stop him from getting through the first round as soon as he possibly could.

Laslo Djere, ranked 56th, watched the winner land, held out both hands, and no doubt wondered what more he needed to do to win a point.

When Djere, going for everything, double-faulted to open what became the last game of the match, a woman in the crowd at Rod Laver Arena yelled out “It’s all right, Laslo.”

Easy for her to say.

Nadal finished off a 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 win in just under two hours Tuesday in his first competitive match of the year – he didn’t play for Spain at the ATP Cup last week because of the back stiffness.

“My back is not perfect, as I said a couple of days ago,” Nadal said. “Every day that I’m able to go through, probably there are more chances to get better. That’s the thing now – there is always a chance to improve, and that’s why I’m here playing and fighting to try to get better and then give myself a chance.”

A minor change to his service motion was among the precautions he took “survive” for the first round.

“I need to go day-to-day,” he said, “and just try to stay positive.”

He’ll next play American qualifier Michael Mmoh, who outlasted Viktor Troicki 7-6 (3), 6-7 (3), 3-6, 7-6 (3), 7-5.

While Nadal has been slowly building into the tournament, Russia’s ATP Cup-winning teammates have been on a roll.

Daniil Medvedev extended his winning streak to 15 matches with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 win over Vasek Pospisil and seventh-seeded Andrey Rublev beat Yannick Hanfmann 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

In night matches to cap Day 2, fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Gilles Simon 6-1, 6-2, 6-1 and No. 9 Matteo Berrettini defeated Kevin Anderson, a two-time finalist at majors, 7-6 (9), 7-5, 6-3.

In her first match at a major in more than a year, top-ranked Ash Barty dropped only 10 points in a 6-0, 6-0 rout of Danka Kovinic.

Barty lost to Sofia Kenin in the Australian Open semifinals last year and then skipped the U.S. Open and her title defense at the French Open because she stayed in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sofia Kenin struggled with nerves in her first match as a defending champion at a Grand Slam tournament earlier in the day before beating 133rd-ranked wild-card entry Maddison Inglis 7-5, 6-4,

But Barty only needed 44 minutes to advance, saying she’d missed tennis “every single day” during her time away from the sport.

“The competitor in me missed what this is all about,” she said. “Coming out here and really enjoying the thrill of the fight.”

Garbine Muguruza, the Australian Open runner-up last year, defeated Margarita Gasparyan 6-4, 6-0.

Players who were forced into hard lockdown – not allowed to leave their rooms for 14 days after landing in Australia last month – have struggled in the opening round.

Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion and the runner-up at last year’s U.S. Open, appeared to have trouble breathing and received medical attention in the second set of a 7-5, 6-4 loss to Jessica Pegula of the United States.

Azarenka noted how difficult it was to prepare for a major tournament after being one of 72 players who were in a hard quarantine for two weeks – not allowed to leave their hotel rooms for any reason – after potentially being exposed to COVID-19 on her flight to Australia.

“The biggest impact for me personally has been not being able to have fresh air,” the 12th-seeded Azarenka said. “That really took a toll.”

Sloane Stephens lost to No. 26-seeded Yulia Putintseva 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 and Paula Badosa, who went through a three-week isolation because she tested positive for COVID-19, served for the match but dropped the last four games and was beaten by Liudmila Samsonova 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 7-5.

Two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren also went through the hard lockdown. After losing to No. 21 Alex de Minaur 7-5, 6-1, 6-1, Sandgren said for those who’d been through it, the tournament is “not feasible.”

“I’ve never walked on to a court in a Grand Slam knowing that I’m probably not going to be able to win,” he said.

In other results on a sunny Day 2 with the temperature in the low 70s Fahrenheit (low 20s Celsius), Australian wild-card entry Alexei Popyrin saved four match points to beat No. 13 David Goffin 3-6, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6), 6-3 and 17-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz defeated Botic Van de Zandschulp 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 to become the youngest man to win a Grand Slam match since Thanasi Kokkinakis in 2014.

And an even younger player, 16-year-old Coco Gauff, won 6-3, 6-2 against Jil Teichmann to set up a second-round showdown against fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina.

Other seeded players advancing included No. 6 Karolina Pliskova, No. 21 Anett Kontaveit and No. 25 Karolina Muchova.

No. 13 Johanna Konta left the court for medical treatment after winning the first set against Kaja Juvan and retired after dropping serve and falling behind 2-0 in the second.

Mayar Sherif made history for Egyptian tennis, beating fellow qualifier Chloe Paquet 7-5, 7-5 to become the first woman from her country to win a Grand Slam match.

“Obviously, it means a lot,” Sherif said, “because finally this is barrier that I had to pass, a mental barrier.”

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?”