At 39, Feliciano Lopez is not just showing up, he’s winning

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Feliciano Lopez doesn’t remember much about his first Grand Slam match. It was 2001, the French Open, and he was 19 years old.

“I think I got killed in the first round by Carlos Moya, if I’m not wrong. He was my idol growing up,” Lopez said. “For me, it was like a gift, to play Carlos at the French Open.”

Nearly 20 years later, Lopez is not only still competing at the Grand Slam events, but doing the unthinkable for someone his age (going on 40). He rallied from two sets down, on a hot, humid day, to beat No. 31 Lorenzo Sonego 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 at the Australian Open.

“He probably didn’t expect it, after two sets to love (up), you don’t expect the 39-year-old guy is going to come back,” Lopez, admittedly exhausted, said after the match.

Perhaps even more astonishing, Lopez is playing at his 75th consecutive Grand Slam event, a record among men’s singles players. He hasn’t missed a major since the 2002 French Open.

To put this in perspective, Roger Federer managed 65 consecutive Grand Slams before he had to withdraw from the 2016 French Open with an injury. The closest male player with an active streak is Italy’s Andreas Seppi at 62; among the women, it’s Alize Cornet at 56.

Lopez has carved out a decent career for himself, with seven career titles (more than half coming on his beloved grass) and four quarterfinal appearances at the Slams (including three at Wimbledon).

But it’s his longevity and consistency that sets him apart from the rest. Getting into the main draws of majors on a regular basis depends on maintaining a top-100 ranking, and Lopez has done this, too, for most of his career. (He’s currently ranked No. 65.)

Lopez even managed to keep his streak alive here in Melbourne despite the hard decisions about traveling not long after his wife gave birth to their first child, Dario, a little over a month ago.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to come here,” he said after his first-round win. “I was until the last minute thinking about what should I do, if I come or if I finally stay home.”

The trip was arguably worth it – particularly after his improbable, come-from-behind win against Sonego. It may just be the most memorable five-set match of his career, he said.

“To win a match in a Slam for me now is very special. If I do it the way I did today, even more,” he said. “So, to be in the third round now, it’s something very special for me. That’s why I’m very happy today.”

NEW TITLE: MOM

Former No. 1 and 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki is getting ready to add “Mom” to her list of titles.

The 30-year-old from Denmark announced on Twitter that she is pregnant, writing: “Can’t wait to meet our baby girl in June!”

Wozniacki also posted a picture that included sonogram photos, baby shoes and a stuffed animal.

She retired from professional tennis after a third-round loss last year at Melbourne Park.

Wozniacki married former NBA player David Lee in 2019.

MIXED DOUBLES RETURN

Mixed doubles matches don’t get much traction early on at Grand Slam tournaments. Last year, Jamie Murray and Bethanie Mattek-Sands changed all that – and they’re back this year as a team at the Australian Open.

Murray and Mattek-Sands, the eventual runners-up, beat the top-seeded team of Barbora Strycova and Marcelo Melo in the first round last year.

Two games into that match is when all the fun started. Mattek-Sands hit a shot down the line to apparently win a point. But the chair umpire gave the point to Melo and Strycova, citing hindrance from Murray because he called for a challenge in the middle of the rally.

The decision stunned Mattek-Sands and Murray, and an argument ensued between the pair and the chair umpire that lasted 10 minutes.

“Tell me, how else are you supposed to call a challenge in the middle of a fast point,” Mattek-Sands said to the umpire. “Do you know how fast the ball comes at me?

The umpire said Mattek-Sands needed to have stopped the rally for the challenge to have occurred, and the point to Strycova and Melo stood.

Strycova is also back this year with a new partner, Nikola Mektic, as the top seeds in the draw. Mattek-Sands and Murray are unseeded.

Mixed doubles were cancelled at the U.S, Open and French Open last year because of restrictions in place for the COVID-19 pandemic.

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?”