Prodigy no longer? Coco Gauff makes breakthrough in Paris at 17

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PARIS — If Coco Gauff keeps playing like this, she’s going to go from teenage prodigy to Grand Slam champion in a hurry.

The 17-year-old American completely overwhelmed Ons Jabeur in a 6-3, 6-1 victory at the French Open on Monday to become the youngest woman to reach the quarterfinals at any Grand Slam tournament in 15 years.

Gauff lost only nine points on her serve and was also highly effective at the net, winning 13 of 17 points when she came forward – which was especially impressive against a player who is known for her shot-making skills.

“I feel like this has been the most consistent tennis I have played at this level,” Gauff said. “Hopefully I can keep that going.”

Gauff is one of six first-time Grand Slam quarterfinalists in the women’s draw. The others include her next opponent, Barbora Krejcikova, along with Maria Sakkari, Elena Rybakina, Paula Badosa and Tamara ZIdansek. Marta Kostyuk could become the seventh by beating 2020 champion Iga Swiatek on Monday night.

Krejcikova advanced by beating 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens with a similarly lopsided score – 6-2, 6-0. The No. 17th-seeded Sakkari eliminated last year’s runner-up, Sofia Kenin, 6-1, 6-3.

Jabeur said Gauff is a contender to raise the trophy – either this year or in the future.

“If she’s not going to win it now, she’s probably going to win another time,” the Tunisian said.

It wouldn’t be the first time Gauff claims a title at Roland Garros, having won the girls’ singles title in 2018.

Gauff already announced herself as a contender to become the next great American player when she made a run to the fourth round at Wimbledon as a 15-year-old qualifier two years ago. Now, having gone one step further, she became the youngest American to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal since Venus Williams did it at 17 at the 1997 U.S. Open.

“I’m only going to be 17 once, so you might as well talk about it while I’m 17,” Gauff said.

Gauff has not dropped a set in Paris this year. She won both the singles and doubles titles at a warmup tournament in Parma before coming to Paris. That came after a run to the semifinals of the Italian Open.

In all, she’s on a career-best nine-match winning streak.

“Parma gave me a lot of confidence, especially on the clay,” Gauff said. “It taught me a lot about how to close out matches and deal with the pressure on important points.”

SHAKEN

Sofia Kenin blamed jitters for her fourth-round exit in the French Open.

At No. 4, Kenin was the highest-seeded player left in the women’s draw. But she lost serve six times and had 32 unforced errors in a 6-1, 6-3 loss to Maria Sakkari of Greece.

“Nerves got the better of me,” Kenin said. “Definitely I need some work on that. It’s really disappointing. I had some tough matches and I was able to win, I was able to deal with my nerves. And today obviously it’s really frustrating — I get here and I completely lose it. There’s a lot of mental work to be done.”

Last year Kenin won the Australian Open and was the runner-up at Roland Garros. But she has just a 10-9 record in 2021, and last month announced she no longer would be coached by her father, Alex.

She declined to discuss her expectations for the rest of the year.

“I think it’s better for me not to say anything,” she said. “My emotions are high, and I just need some time to be by myself.”

ANOTHER BORG

Exactly 40 years to the day after Bjorn Borg won the last French Open match of his career for his sixth title in Paris, his son, Leo, won his very first junior match at Roland Garros.

For Leo, it’s already too late to match his father’s precocity. Aged 18, Leo has yet to win a professional match on the main tour. Bjorn Borg had just turned 18 when he won his first French Open title.

“I was having a hard time when I was a bit younger,” Leo said when asked about the huge expectations linked to his name. “Now I’m getting used to it, I can control it more. But it’s going to be following me all my tennis career. It’s not bothering me.”

Leo started playing tennis when he was 6 years old but said he did not train seriously until he was 14 when he quit soccer. He made his professional debut in February last year and said his “lowest goal” is now to make it to the Top 10 at some point.

After spending three weeks training at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Spain last year, he returned to Sweden to work with his long-time coach at the Royal Tennis Club. His father occasionally gives him a few tips but doesn’t get mixed up with his son’s training.

“The best advice he gave me is to have things organized,” he said. “To have everything in life organized.”

In addition to his six Roland Garros titles, Bjorn Borg also won five times on the Wimbledon grass. After initially being drawn to hard-court tennis, Leo said his best surface is going to be clay because it’s better suited to his game.

On Monday, he progressed to the second round of the boys’ tournament with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Frenchman Max Westphal. Their match on Court 14 drew fans cheering loudly for both players.

“It was a great crowd, very loud, and a great feeling,” he said.

Leo’s father will arrive in Paris later this week and the teenager hopes he will still be in the fray at that stage so that Bjorn – who celebrated his 65th birthday this week – can watch him play.

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

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LONDON – Former top-10 player Fernando Verdasco accepted a voluntary provisional doping suspension of two months after testing positive for a medication for ADHD, the International Tennis Integrity Agency announced.

Verdasco, who turned 39 this month, said he was taking methylphenidate as medication prescribed by his doctor to treat ADHD but forgot to renew his therapeutic use exemption for the drug. The integrity agency said Verdasco has now been granted an exemption by the World Anti-Doping Agency moving forward.

He tested positive at an ATP Challenger tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in February.

The integrity agency said in a news release that it “accepts that the player did not intend to cheat, that his violation was inadvertent and unintentional, and that he bears no significant fault or negligence for it,” and so what could have been a two-year suspension was reduced to two months.

Verdasco will be eligible to compete on Jan. 8.

The Spaniard is a four-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, reaching that stage most recently in 2013 at Wimbledon, where he blew a two-set lead in a five-set loss to eventual champion Andy Murray.

Verdasco reached a career-best ranking of No. 7 in April 2009 and currently is No. 125.

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports
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MALAGA, Spain — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him.

A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup.

“I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Canada won the title for the first time, beating Australia behind victories from Denis Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime secured the winning point when he downed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4 after Shapovalov opened the day by rolling past Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.

Seven years after leading Canada to the top of junior tennis, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and their teammates finally got to lift the biggest team trophy in their sport.

“We wanted to grow up and be part of the team and try to help the country win the first title,” Shapovalov said, “so everything is just so surreal right now.”

Shapovalov had dropped both his singles matches this week and needed treatment on his back during a three-set loss in the semifinals to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy that lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. But the left-hander moved quickly around the court, setting up angles to put away winners while racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set.

Auger-Aliassime then finished off his superb second half of the season by completing a perfect week in Spain. He twice had kept the Canadians alive after Shapovalov dropped the opening singles match, and he replaced his weary teammate to join Vasek Pospisil for the decisive doubles point.

This time, Auger-Aliassime made sure the doubles match wouldn’t even be necessary. After his teammates poured onto the court to celebrate with him, they got up and danced around in a circle.

Canada had reached the final only once, falling to host Spain in Madrid in 2019, when Rafael Nadal beat Shapovalov for the clinching point after Auger-Aliassime had lost in the opening match.

But with Auger-Aliassime having since surged up the rankings to his current spot at No. 6, the Canadians are a much more formidable team now. They won the ATP Cup in January and finally added the Davis Cup crown to the junior Davis Cup title Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led them to in 2015.

Australia was trying for its 29th title and first since current captain Lleyton Hewitt was part of the title-winning team in 2003.

But it was finally time for the Canadians, who were given a wild card into the field when Russia was suspended because of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Look, I think we were very close today,” de Minaur said. “Just wait until the next time we get the same matchup. Hopefully we can get the win and prove that we can do it.”

But Canada will be tough to beat as long as Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov play.

Shapovalov is just 23 and Auger-Aliassime 22, but both already have been Grand Slam semifinalists and Auger-Aliassime ended 2022 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour. He won all of his four titles this year, including three straight weeks in October.

He also beat Carlos Alcaraz in the previous Davis Cup stage in September, just after the Spaniard had won the U.S. Open to rise to No. 1 in the rankings. That victory helped send the Canadians into the quarterfinals, which they started this week by edging Germany.

“They’re not kids anymore, that’s for sure. Not after today – well not after the last couple of years,” said Pospisil, the team veteran at 32. “They’ve been crushing it.”