Stephens overpowers Gauff at U.S. Open

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NEW YORK – Three years ago, a reporter asked Sloane Stephens to point out a younger tennis player most fans might not have heard of yet, someone she thought could become a household name some day. Stephens paused to ponder, but not for long, before responding: Coco Gauff, then 14.

Stephens had first met Gauff several years earlier – they last hit together on a court in Florida when Gauff was 12 – and clearly knew what she was talking about. The world would quickly discover Gauff, too. The pair of friends met in an official match for the first time Wednesday night at the U.S. Open, and it was Stephens, the 2017 champion now ranked 66th, who pulled away for a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Gauff, now 17 and seeded 21st.

Afterward, the pair met at the net for a warm hug, before Stephens praised the player – and person – Gauff has become.

“I love Coco. I think everyone knows I love Coco. At the end of the match, I said, `I love you.’ She’s such a great player and I feel so lucky to have seen her grow up and play since she was 8,” Stephens told the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd.

“I know,” Stephens added, “there’s going to be great things ahead for her.”

With the Ashe roof shut during a heavy downpour brought by remnants of Hurrican Ida – a tornado warning was in effect in the region and there was flooding around the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center – the thump-thump-thump of the rain created a bass beat that drowned out the usual sounds of a tennis match. It was so loud Stephens could barely hear the questions during her on-court interview.

Only one other court at Flushing Meadows can be covered during bad weather, but even that was an issue Wednesday evening, because wind helped push rain through the space between the concourse and the retractable cover at Louis Armstrong Stadium – a gap there on purpose to provide natural ventilation. So the match between two-time major finalist Kevin Anderson and Diego Schwartzman was delayed for nearly a half-hour at 5-all in the first set while workers used air blowers to dry the playing surface, then stopped again early in the second set when the court got so wet that efforts to clear the puddles were abandoned.

Eventually, the tournament gave up on getting that match done in Armstrong and decided to move it to Ashe following the conclusion of French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas’ 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-0 victory over Adrian Mannarino. Those moving on in the men’s draw in the afternoon included No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, No. 5 Andrey Rublev and 18-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, who takes on Tsitsipas next.

The match to determine the next foe for Stephens – three-time Slam champ Angelique Kerber vs. Anhelina Kalinina – was supposed to be played in Armstrong following Anderson-Schwartzman but was postponed until Thursday.

The conditions didn’t matter at all to defending champion Naomi Osaka, who advanced in the morning when her second-round opponent, Olga Danilovic, pulled out of the tournament because of what she said was a viral illness – but not COVID-19.

Other past major title winners Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza and Victoria Azarenka moved on more conventionally with straight-set wins. Muguruza next faces Azarenka, who in addition to a pair of Australian Open trophies is a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open, including when she lost to Osaka in the final a year ago.

Osaka hasn’t been beaten in a Grand Slam match since losing to Gauff at the 2020 Australian Open.

And against Stephens, Gauff did briefly display the varied skills that helped her to that win and others on big stages, including twice against Venus Williams, and a run to the Roland Garros quarterfinals in June.

But Stephens, quite simply, was better. From 4-all at the outset, she claimed eight of the remaining 10 games, with a performance largely built with terrific placement of her serves and stinging forehands. Gauff’s lone break chance came when she was up 2-1 in the second set, but Stephens held there, then broke at love and was on her way, never ceding another game.

“The forehand,” Stephens said, “was key today.”

Gauff had seen that forehand up close five years ago during a friendly practice but, as she noted: “I definitely don’t remember how her ball felt when I was 12. She definitely was probably taking some pace off then. I don’t really count that.”

Stephens, who was two points from losing to good friend Madison Keys on Monday in a rematch of their 2017 final in New York, won 39 of 49 points she served, an 80% rate. She also put 84% of her first serves in play.

“I love that,” Stephens said when a reporter told her about that number.

More than a decade Gauff’s senior at age 28, Stephens also handled her opponent’s faster serves adroitly, breaking three times.

Both walloped the ball during big-strike exchanges from the baseline, with enviable and unrelenting power. The official stats showed they combined for 24 winners and 44 unforced errors, but that latter designation seemed unfair to assign, given how much each was forced to try to handle from the other side of the net.

“Obviously, I have a lot of respect for Sloane. Looked up to her for a while. Known her since I was little,” Gauff said. “But I don’t think our relationship affected the match.”

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.

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.”