Nadal returns to tour with win over Sock in Washington

Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports
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WASHINGTON — There were moments, to be sure, when Rafael Nadal played quite like someone competing for the first time in nearly two months. The shaky serving. The consecutive netted forehands that handed over a key break.

And then, on the way to a 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (1) victory over Jack Sock at the Citi Open over more than three hours, there were moments when Nadal seemed every bit the 20-time Grand Slam champion who drew a full house announced at 7,500 merely by making his debut at the hard-court tournament.

The highlight was a back-to-the-net, between-the-legs bit of magic in the first set that prompted Nadal to punch the air and prompted his fans to stand and roar. The court coverage on that effort, and when he smacked an on-the-run winner off a drop shot by Sock in the tiebreaker, at least, hid any apparent issues stemming from the foot injury Nadal recently revealed was part of why he sat out Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics and went three weeks without lifting a racket.

The pair of lefty forehand winners he snapped off to earn a set point that he then converted with a return winner to take the opener was among the good. So was his impeccable form in the tiebreaker. The first-serve percentage of 47 in the opening set and an inability to collect so much as a single break chance in the second were among the bad.

There was a lot of up-and-down play by the 35-year-old Spaniard, which Nadal himself suggested could happen. That makes sense, given that he last played a point that mattered in June, during a loss to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open, an event Nadal has won 13 times.

After that, Nadal said his body needed to rest and recover from the grueling clay-court circuit. In the meantime, Djokovic pulled even with Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 major championships apiece, so the Big Three share the men’s record heading into the U.S. Open, where play begins Aug. 30.

If getting match-ready ahead of the trip to Flushing Meadows is of primary importance, Nadal did get an opportunity to try to shake off some rust against Sock, an American ranked only 192nd now but a former member of the top 10 in singles and owner of three Grand Slam titles in men’s doubles.

After getting broken to trail 4-3 in the second set, then again to go down 1-0 in the third, a deficit that would reach 3-1, Nadal reverted to his best self.

He held without trouble, then broke to 3-all by whipping a forehand to close a 16-stroke exchange before sprinting to reach a drop shot and extend a point he would win – and mark with a yell of “Vamos!” and fist pumps – when Sock netted his response.

Suddenly, with the help of an over-the-shoulder flicked volley, Nadal held again and now led 4-3. He was simply far better at the very end.

Nadal came in with a 5-0 head-to-head mark, although they hadn’t played since 2017, in part because Sock finished 2019 unranked and has been on the lower-level Challenger Tour.

Nadal now meets 14th-seeded Lloyd Harris, a South African who advanced when his opponent, Tennys Sandgren of the U.S., stopped playing because of rib pain.

Earlier, No. 6 seed Dan Evans lost his first match since testing positive for COVID-19 last month and missing the Olympics. Evans was beaten 7-6 (1), 6-0 by Brandon Nakashima of the U.S.

Other seeds exiting Wednesday: No. 3 Alex de Minaur, No. 4 Grigor Dimitrov, No. 9 Alexander Bublik, No. 10 Taylor Fritz and No. 13 Benoit Paire.

Nadal nearly joined them on the way out. Pushed to the brink, he pulled through.

Nick Bollettieri, coach to many tennis stars, dies at 91

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Nick Bollettieri, the Hall of Fame tennis coach who worked with some of the sport’s biggest stars, including Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, and founded an academy that revolutionized the development of young athletes, died at 91.

Bollettieri died at home in Florida after a series of health issues, his manager, Steve Shulla, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

“When he became sick, he got so many wonderful messages from former students and players and coaches. Many came to visit him. He got videos from others,” Shulla said. “It was wonderful. He touched so many lives and he had a great send-off.”

Known for his gravelly voice, leathery skin and wraparound sunglasses – and a man who called himself the “Michelangelo of Tennis” despite never playing professionally – Bollettieri helped no fewer than 10 players who went on to be No. 1 in the world rankings. That group includes sisters Serena and Venus Williams, Jim Courier, Maria Sharapova, Agassi and Seles.

“Our dear friend, Nick Bollettieri, graduated from us last night. He gave so many a chance to live their dream,” Agassi wrote on Twitter. “He showed us all how life can be lived to the fullest. Thank you, Nick.”

Bollettieri remained active into his 80s, touring the world to drop in on the top tournaments and, in 2014, became only the fourth coach to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. That was the same year another one of his proteges, Kei Nishikori, reached the final of the U.S. Open.

Six of his pupils already are in the Hall of Fame, a number sure to grow once others are eligible.

“I forged my own path, which others found to be unorthodox and downright crazy,” Bollettieri said in his induction speech at the hall in Newport, Rhode Island. “Yes, I am crazy. But it takes crazy people to do things that other people say cannot be done.”

The Bollettieri Tennis Academy opened in 1978 in Bradenton, Florida, and was purchased by IMG in 1987.

The IMG Academy now spans more than 600 acres and offers programs in more than a half-dozen sports in addition to tennis.

Bollettieri was an educator who would brag he never read a book, never mind that he majored in philosophy in college and even gave law school a try, albeit for less than a year.

He also was an adept self-promoter – one who would publish a pair of autobiographies – no matter that detractors dismissed him as a hustler and huckster. The truth is, any criticism was no match for the astounding success of his pupils.

His teaching methods were widely copied and tennis academies dot the globe today.

“Our sport lost one of its most passionate coaches & advocates,” Hall of Fame member Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter. “Nick was always positive & was able to get the best out of everyone fortunate enough to work w/him.”

Bollettieri’s first student to reach No. 1 was Boris Becker in 1991. Then came others, such as Martina Hingis, Marcelo Rios and Jelena Jankovic.

Just as rewarding, Bollettieri said, were the successes of less accomplished players.

“The fuel that has sustained me to the summit is, without a doubt, my passion to help others become champions of life, not champions just on the tennis court,” he said. “Nothing makes me more happy than when I run into a past student or receive a kind note telling me how I changed their lives, that they are better parents, lawyers, doctors, CEOs and people because of the impact I made on their lives.”

Bollettieri’s devotion to his players came at a cost. For much of his career, he was on the road nine months out of every year, and he cited his travel schedule as one reason he was married eight times.

Survivors include his wife, Cindi, seven children and four grandchildren, according to Shulla, who said a celebration of Bollettieri’s life is planned for March.

Nicholas James Bollettieri was born July 31, 1931, in Pelham, New York. He earned a philosophy degree and played tennis at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and was a paratrooper in the Army before enrolling in law school at the University of Miami.

For spending money, Bollettieri began teaching tennis for $1.50 an hour, according to the Hall of Fame. More than 60 years later, his fee was $900.

After a few months, he dropped out of law school to concentrate on coaching. At first, he conceded, knowledge of tennis technique wasn’t his forte.

“I didn’t know much about teaching the game,” he said. “The gift God gave me was the ability to read people.”

Bollettieri won praise for his motivational skills, yelling when he deemed it necessary. He had an eye for talent and was a visionary regarding boot-camp training for young athletes who lived together.

He bought a club in 1978, and students lived in his house. Two years later, he borrowed $1 million from a friend to build a first-of-its-kind complex in what had been a tomato field.

The site now has a boarding school, 55 tennis courts and facilities for seven other sports, including football, basketball and baseball.

Running a business wasn’t Bollettieri’s strong suit, and he sold the academy to IMG but continued to work there, stressing a tactical approach that transformed tennis. He urged players to take advantage of modern racket technology, emphasizing power over finesse.

The academy churned out big hitters who relied on their serve and forehand to overpower opponents. That approach worked for Agassi, Seles, Courier and many others.

“In my dreams,” Bollettieri confessed with a grin, “I say, `Nick, you’re darn good.”‘

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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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.