Nadal rallies past Shapovalov in Rome

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ROME — When it comes to long, grueling clay-court battles, nobody is better than Rafael Nadal.

Nearing his 35th birthday, the Spanish great showed he’s still got the stamina to withstand much younger challengers in a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3) comeback win over 22-year-old Denis Shapovalov that secured him a spot in the Italian Open quarterfinals.

Nadal roared back from 3-0 down in the second set and then saved two match points on his serve at 6-5 in the third.

It seems – and it’s been this way since Nadal started dominating back in 2005 – that the Spaniard gets tougher and tougher to beat the longer matches wear on.

“That’s why he’s won so many matches on clay,” Shapovalov said. “It’s not the first time Rafa’s done this. I’m not the first person to lose with match points. He does well with the pressure in those moments.”

Nadal, who will be aiming for a record-extending 14th French Open title next month, was also pushed at times in a straight-set win over 19-year-old Jannik Sinner that ended late Wednesday.

Then there was his long three-set victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas – another 22-year-old – in the Barcelona Open final last month.

“To be able to win these kind of matches against young players give me confidence with my body,” Nadal said.

Nadal struggled to hold serve at the start, while Shapovalov was blasting aces and winners with his one-handed backhand. Nadal dug in, though, and started to win the longer rallies.

Shapovalov missed a backhand to conclude a long rally on his first match point then shanked a forehand on his second. A costly double-fault handed Nadal a 3-1 lead in the tiebreaker and the Spaniard quickly closed it out after 3 hours, 27 minutes.

Nadal, a nine-time champion in Rome, will next face Alexander Zverev, the 2017 Rome champion and the winner of last week’s Madrid Open.

Zverev also won in a comeback, beating Kei Nishikori 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

“I have to do things better for tomorrow,” Nadal said.

Earlier, top-ranked Novak Djokovic seemed to enjoy every moment of his 6-2, 6-1 win over Spanish qualifier Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

Djokovic will next face Tsitsipas, who eliminated Matteo Berrettini 7-6 (3), 6-2 in a matchup of top-10 players.

“It’s going to be a battle,” said Djokovic, who has reached the quarterfinals in each of his 15 Rome appearances.

After spectators were banned from the opening rounds because of the coronavirus pandemic, capacity was at 25% as part of the Italian government’s re-opening plan.

“I missed the crowd as much as anybody else – one of the biggest reasons why I keep on playing,” Djokovic said.

A five-time champion in Rome – with his last title coming in September when the tournament was moved amid the pandemic – Djokovic has had a rough start to the clay season.

He lost in the third round loss to Daniel Evans in Monte Carlo followed by a defeat to Aslan Karatsev in the semifinals of his home tournament, the Belgrade Open.

Djokovic said he played “at least 20-30% better” than he did against Taylor Fritz in his opening match in Rome.

“So I’m on a good trajectory,” he added.

Also reaching the quarterfinals was 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) American Reilly Opelka, who eliminated Karatsev, an Australian Open semifinalist, 7-6 (6), 6-4.

Opelka served 18 aces to record his third consecutive straight-set win this week – after entering Rome on a six-match losing streak that included dealing with a bout of COVID-19. He has yet to drop his serve this week.

Opelka next faces Argentine qualifier Federico Delbonis, who beat Felix Auger-Aliassime 7-6 (3), 6-1.

In the women’s tournament, top-ranked Ash Barty beat Veronika Kudermetova 6-3, 6-3 and will next face American teenager Coco Gauff, who defeated Madrid champion Aryna Sabalenka 7-5, 6-3. French Open champion Iga Swiatek beat Barbora Krejcikova 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5.

The 17-year-old Gauff said she was helped by a breathing technique she learned from watching the Japanese anime series Demon Slayer.

“The main character, Tanjiro, he has this breathing technique right before he fights. When I get nervous, I notice that slowing down my breathing helps me a lot,” Gauff said. “At least five to 10 times it was in my head. You got to do the total concentration breathing that Tanjiro does.”

 

Djokovic to start 2023 in Adelaide ahead of Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic will open his 2023 campaign in Adelaide as he prepares for a shot at a 10th Australian Open crown a year after having his visa revoked on the eve of his title defense.

The 21-time major winner has been granted a visa by the Australian government and has been listed to play at the Adelaide International, which starts Jan. 1.

Serbia isn’t contesting the inaugural United Cup team competition, leaving Djokovic free to play regular warmup tournaments head of the Jan. 16-29 Australian Open.

He’ll be joined in the men’s draw at Adelaide by Russians Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada and Andy Murray.

Ons Jabeur, Aryna Sabalenka will headline the women’s draw.

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles last month confirmed Djokovic had been granted a visa to compete in Australia in January. The 35-year-old Serbian had been facing a possible three-year ban after being deported last January over his stance against COVID-19 vaccination.

Djokovic has won the Australian Open a record nine times, including the last three times he played. Rafael Nadal won this year’s title in Djokovic’s absence.

Djokovic was not vaccinated against COVID-19 when he arrived in Melbourne ahead of the 2022 tournament, but Australia has since lifted strict rules for unvaccinated travelers.

Karolina Pliskova reuniting with Sascha Bajin

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Two-time Grand Slam finalist Karolina Pliskova is reuniting with coach Sascha Bajin ahead of the 2023 season.

Pliskova posted on her website and her Twitter account about the move, which comes about six months after she and Bajin stopped working together. The pair originally teamed up in November 2020.

While Bajin was her coach, Pliskova reached the final at Wimbledon in 2021 before losing to champion Ash Barty. Pliskova also was the runner-up at the 2016 U.S. Open, where she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals before being beat by Angelique Kerber for the trophy.

After splitting from Bajin in July, Pliskova was coached by Leos Friedl. Their results together included a quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open.

Bajin has worked as a coach or hitting partner with several top tennis players, including Grand Slam title winners Williams, Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki.

“Thank you for having me back,” Bajin wrote on Twitter. “Let’s go get it.”

Pliskova is a 30-year-old from the Czech Republic who reached No. 1 in the WTA rankings in 2017 and finished this season at No. 31 after going 21-21 with no titles.

Her team also includes fitness specialist Jez Green and physiotherapist Martin Salvador.

Next year’s first Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open, begins Jan. 16.