Osaka wins U.S. Open return, hopes to ‘believe more in myself’

Sarah Stier/Getty Images
1 Comment

NEW YORK – Here’s the realization Naomi Osaka came to, gradually and only recently: If other people think a lot of her, she probably should, too.

“Hearing a little kid telling me that I’m their favorite player or I’m a role model, instinctively the first thought in my mind is, like, `Why?”‘ Osaka explained as Monday turned to Tuesday after a successful start to her U.S. Open title defense. “I feel like I have to sort of embrace more … the honor that they’re telling me that, and I should believe more in myself. I feel like if you don’t believe in yourself, then other people won’t believe in yourself.”

During her return to Grand Slam action after a mental health break – an at-times-dominant 6-4, 6-1 victory over 87th-ranked Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic – Osaka heard the high-pitched voice of one such “little kid” in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

When the match ended, Osaka went over with a little gift: one of the Olympic pins athletes collect.

With a bit of self-deprecation, Osaka noted that she didn’t stick around at the Tokyo Games long enough to trade away all of those mini-souvenirs (a native of host country Japan, she was granted the honor of lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony, then lost her third-round match).

The Summer Olympics marked her first competition anywhere since May 30 at the French Open.

That day, Osaka skipped her mandatory news conference after her first-round victory in Paris, drawing a $15,000 fine and a warning from the heads of the Slams that she could face a suspension. She responded by pulling out of Roland Garros, explaining that she feels anxiety when speaking to the media and has dealt with depression for years. Osaka then sat out Wimbledon, too.

The 23-year-old is clearly introspective and thoughtful, someone who is getting more and more used to sharing her innermost ideas with the rest of the world. In a social media post Sunday about ruminations on self-worth, Osaka wrote that she’s “gonna try to celebrate myself and my accomplishments more, I think we all should” and that she “can’t burden myself with (others’) expectations anymore.”

On Monday, she entered Ashe with her usual first-round Slam jitters, but not because of any sense of pressure to win, Osaka said afterward.

Instead, it was based on a desire to play well, especially for the loud and appreciative full house that was there a year after she won the title in a nearly empty arena because spectators were banned then amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I tell people that I’m a perfectionist. I think for me, something that’s less than perfection, even though it might be something great, is a disappointment. I don’t really think that’s a healthy way of thinking, so something that I really wanted to change,” said the third-seeded Osaka, who next faces 145th-ranked Olga Danilovic.

“In this tournament I just want to be happy with knowing that I did my best and knowing that even though I didn’t play perfect, I was able to win a match in two sets. … It’s more like a life thing,” she continued. “Like, I hope I can keep this mindset throughout my life going forward.”

Maybe she wasn’t perfect against Bouzkova, who is now 1-11 in Slam matches. After all, the score was 4-all in the early going. From there, though, Osaka reeled off eight of the last nine games.

Helped by a serve that reached 120 mph, she saved all eight break points she faced and accumulated a 34-10 edge in total winners.

“Last year, when we didn’t have a crowd, I know it felt quite lonely for me,” she said with a smile during her on-court interview. “I’m glad to see little kids in the audience – and, of course, grown-ups, too.”

Osaka improved to 55-14 in matches at the majors, including 22-3 at the U.S. Open as she tries to become the first woman with consecutive trophies in New York since Serena Williams collected her third in a row in 2014.

Osaka beat Williams in the chaotic 2018 final in Ashe. She also has won hard-court major titles at the Australian Open in 2019 and this February.

“I’ve played a lot of matches on this court,” Osaka told the Ashe fans. “Definitely, I feel really comfortable here.”

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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
1 Comment

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.”