Djokovic lets emotions show at U.S. Open as Grand Slam nears

KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images
5 Comments

NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic did not seek to keep his thoughts to himself on court, the way he mostly did through his first two U.S. Open matches. Instead, he let it all out, slapping his chest or sneering with a fist raised to celebrate success, pointing to his ear to ask the crowd for noise.

This was the Djokovic everyone is so accustomed to seeing – yes, winning on the Grand Slam stage, of course, as he always does in this magical season, but also animated and into it, encouraging the spectators to join him for the ride on his path toward tennis history.

Taking another step in his bid to complete the first calendar-year Slam by a man in more than a half-century, Djokovic moved into the fourth round at Flushing Meadows for the 14th consecutive appearance, coming back to beat Kei Nishikori 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.

“I don’t plan to have those kind of emotional moments on the court, whether good or bad. It just happens,” Djokovic said. “In the heat of the battle, when you feel like the moment is very important … you just want to get those things out of yourself, out of your system – try to, I guess, ride on that energy wave that you create, whether it’s with yourself, whether it’s with the crowd.”

Djokovic, a 34-year-old from Serbia who is ranked No. 1, is now 24-0 in the sport’s four most important events this season, having won the Australian Open in February, the French Open in June and Wimbledon in July. The last man to go 4 for 4 at the majors was Rod Laver in 1969; Steffi Graf was the last woman, in 1988.

Win four more matches next week, and Djokovic also would earn his 21st career Slam trophy, breaking the men’s mark he currently shares with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

“I would not be honest fully if I told you I don’t think or I don’t believe or I don’t visualize that I can win every single Grand Slam that I play in,” Djokovic said. “I’m not surprised when I win Slams and big tournaments because that’s always a goal.”

It was in the fourth round last year that Djokovic’s U.S. Open ended, defaulted late in the first set for hitting a ball after ceding a game and inadvertently hitting a line judge in the throat.

Now he’ll play 20-year-old American wild-card entry Jenson Brooksby or 21st-seeded Aslan Karatsev, an Australian Open semifinalist this year.

Other players advancing on a sunny Saturday included Wimbledon runner-up Matteo Berrettini and No. 13 Jannik Sinner – they gave Italy a pair of men in the U.S. Open’s fourth round for the first time in the event’s 140-year history – along with Olympic women’s gold medalist Belinda Bencic, 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu, 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek, two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova and 18-year-old Emma Raducanu of Britain.

No. 1 Ash Barty and Tokyo Games men’s champion Alexander Zverev were scheduled to play in the night session.

After eliminating a couple of inexperienced opponents ranked 121st and 145th, Djokovic faced someone with a far better resume in Nishikori, who was the runner-up at the 2014 U.S. Open and has been as high as No. 4.

Here, though, was the problem for Nishikori heading into this encounter: He’d lost his last 16 matches against Djokovic. And while Nishikori, to loud roars from the stands in Arthur Ashe Stadium, stole the first set, the march to No. 17 in a row was soon in progress.

“I don’t think I started off very well. I was quite passive. I was too far back in the court. He was dictating the play,” Djokovic said. “He played much quicker and more aggressive than my opponents in the opening rounds did.”

One key stat: Djokovic made 20 unforced errors in the first set, then reduced that to an average of 10 1/2 per set over the last three.

Here’s more: Djokovic came up with a high-for-him 15 aces.

“I couldn’t break the wall,” Nishikori said. “He’s very tough ’til the end.”

And Djokovic reacted to vital moments with joy, eliciting similar displays from fans, who were barred from the tournament in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The crowd was involved. It was loud. It was nice,” Djokovic said. “I thrived on that.”

When he broke to lead 2-1 in the second set by winning a fantastic point that ended with both men near the net, he spun around and yelled, mouth agape. In his guest box, his wife, Jelena, stood and shouted, “Come on!” When Djokovic saved a break point in the third set, he indicated he wanted louder cheers by reaching for his right ear, then wagging his fingers. When he broke to go up 5-3, he pursed his lips to say, “Ooh!” In the next game, he reacted to a netted drop shot by tapping himself on the head with his racket three times, then screamed first toward one side of the stands, then another, when he claimed that set.

Djokovic described his improved play as the match wore on, stretching past 3 1/2 hours, as “getting that groove back and getting that rhythm.”

In other words, he might just be hitting his stride.

“Maybe,” Nishikori said, “he’s feeling that inside – a lot of pressure – but I couldn’t see that during the match.”

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.”