Rafael Nadal wins opening match; Naomi Osaka also advances

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal began fine-tuning his quest for a 21st Grand Slam singles title with a 6-2, 7-5 win over Ricardas Berankis in a warm-up tournament ahead of the Australian Open.

Nadal, recovering from the coronavirus, showed no signs of sluggishness on Rod Laver Arena, although he was broken early in the second set and again when he served for the match.

“It’s only the first match after a while. Honestly, I have been going through some difficult, challenging moments the past year-and-a-half,” Nadal said, “but in general terms I am super happy to be back in competition.

“Of course it’s important to start with a victory, (which) gives me the chance to play another time tomorrow, and that’s the main thing at this moment because I didn’t play for such a long time.”

In the women’s event at Melbourne Park, defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka beat Maryna Zanevska 6-1, 6-1, and second-seeded Simona Halep defeated Elena-Gabriela Ruse 6-2, 6-2 to advance to the quarterfinals.

Nadal said COVID-19 left him in bed for several days “shaking and tired” and with a fever he said was worse than any other similar illness he had experienced.

“My days had been tough; I was very sick with fever (but) that’s the better way mentally and physically to be ready (to arrive as early as possible) and adapt to the conditions,” he said. “I felt myself good enough and I always wanted to be back on tour and be here.”

Earlier, former French Open champion Iga Swiatek advanced to the Adelaide International quarterfinals with a 6-1, 6-2 win over U.S. Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez.

The fifth-seeded Swiatek joined top-ranked Ash Barty in the last eight and will play two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who beat Priscilla Hon 6-3, 7-5.

“I felt really confident,” Swiatek said. “And I’m pretty happy that I could finish it really quickly and I didn’t let go of focus.”

Seventh-seeded Elina Rybakina and Shelby Rogers, who beat third-seeded Maria Sakkari, will meet in another quarterfinal match.

The Adelaide and Melbourne tournaments are two of six tune-up events being staged in Australia this week ahead of the season-opening major at Melbourne Park, which starts on Jan. 17.

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

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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.”