Djokovic plays twice as Nadal cruises into Rome final

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ROME — Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal had starkly different days at the Italian Open.

Djokovic regained his cool after throwing his racket off the court in a grueling, rain-delayed quarterfinal victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas by 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, then was to play his semifinal later against local favorite Lorenzo Sonego in the second match of the day for both players.

“I haven’t played too many matches this year, so I don’t feel too exhausted,” Djokovic said. “I’m pumped to get another win today.”

Nadal, meanwhile, kept his time on court to a minimum by ending the surprising clay-court run of big-serving American Reilly Opelka by 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals.

The 6-foot-11 Opelka hadn’t dropped a set this week and threatened early against Nadal with a series of huge forehands. But Nadal saved four break points in the fourth game of the match then broke in the next game to take control and move within one victory of a record-extending 10th title at the Foro Italico.

The women’s final will feature French Open champion Iga Swiatek against 2019 Rome champion Karolina Pliskova.

Swiatek also had to play twice on Saturday. First, she eliminated two-time Rome champion Elina Svitolina 6-2, 7-5 then she beat 17-year-old Coco Gauff 7-6 (3), 6-3.

Pliskova reached her third consecutive Rome final by outlasting Petra Martic 6-1, 3-6, 6-2.

Djokovic fought back from breaks of his serve in each of the final two sets to reach his eighth consecutive semifinal in Rome, where he has lifted the trophy five times, most recently last September when the tournament was moved to later in the year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m just really, really glad to overcome this challenge,” Djokovic said. “It’s probably the toughest match of the year for me so far.”

Sonego was backed by a loud crowd when he rallied past seventh-ranked Andrey Rublev 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 to reach his first Masters semifinal. Their match was washed out Friday.

Fans were allowed to fill 25% of capacity as part of the Italian government’s reopening plan.

It was Sonego’s second consecutive win over a top-10 player, after also eliminating No. 4 Dominic Thiem. The Italian routed Djokovic 6-2, 6-1 in their only previous meeting, in Vienna last year.

The Djokovic-Tsitsipas match began on Friday but was suspended overnight with Tsitsipas leading 2-1 with a break in the second set – with play having already been interrupted for 3 1/2 hours due to the intermittent rain.

“It kind of felt like we played two matches,” Djokovic said. “Completely different conditions today; ball bouncing a bit more, coming to you. Yesterday it was really slow and muddy on the court.”

Djokovic also went the distance to beat Tsitsipas in five sets in last year’s French Open semifinals.

This year’s French Open starts in two weeks and Djokovic, who has had a difficult start to the clay-court season, appeared frustrated at times with his game.

Facing a break point early in the third set, Djokovic attempted a difficult drop shot that landed on top of the net cord and agonizingly bounced back into his side of the court – handing Tsitsipas a 2-1 lead.

Djokovic reacted by throwing his racket angrily into the advertising boards lining the side of the court, which drew a code violation warning for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Djokovic’s temper was also an issue during his second-round match this week against Taylor Fritz, when he fumed at the umpire for not stopping play soon enough due to rain.

Last year, Djokovic was disqualified from the U.S. Open for unintentionally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball.

Djokovic’s behavior once again drew attention away from his exquisite play and court coverage – which was effective even on points he lost.

During one particularly long rally, Tsitsipas ran down a drop shot then retreated to the baseline and eventually unleashed a powerful one-handed backhand down the line, to which Djokovic’s forehand reply sailed long. That gave Tsitsipas a break of Djokovic’s serve for a 5-4 lead in the third.

But Tsitsipas was left bent over, with one hand on his knee and the other leaning on his racket, which was resting on the clay.

Clearly exhausted, Tsitsipas couldn’t then serve out the match.

Djokovic quickly took advantage and won three straight games to end it after 3 hours, 16 minutes of play over two days.

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.