Halep into Week 2 at Australian Open for 5th straight year

MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL/USA TODAY NETWORK
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep is into Week 2 at Melbourne Park for the fifth consecutive year.

She’ll be joined in the second week by second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka, who advanced with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 win over No. 31 Marketa Vondrousova.

A contender for the No. 1 ranking – Sabalenka can potentially overtake Ash Barty depending on results here – the 23-year-old from Belarus admits her serve is still a work in progress.

The match started ominously, when Sabalenka had two double-faults and was broken in the first game.

But unlike the previous round, when she had nine double-faults in her first two service games and 19 in the match, the semifinalist last year at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open managed to almost halve that glaring statistic.

“I’m really happy right now,” Sabalenka said, laughing, in her on-court TV interview. “Mostly I’m happy I made only 10 double-faults.”

It’s something she’ll be working on ahead of her next match against No. 115-ranked Kaia Kanepi, who has reached the quarterfinals six times at Grand Slam events – but only once since 2013 and never in Australia.

The 14th-seeded Halep advanced with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Danka Kovinic, a player who is ranked 98th and eliminated U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu in the previous round.

This was Kovinic’s first appearance in the third round of a major.

Halep, by contrast, can count on plenty of experience in the latter stages of the sport’s biggest events. She won the French Open in 2018 and Wimbledon in 2019 and made it to the final of the 2018 Australian Open before losing to Caroline Wozniacki.

“I feel good, I feel more confident now because last year was a tough year,” Halep said. “So now I just enjoy playing tennis, I’m happy.”

None of the other players remaining the women’s draw has won as many tour-level titles as Halep’s 23.

Halep’s next opponent will be Alize Cornet, who celebrated her 32nd birthday with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory over No. 29 Tamara Zidansek, a 2021 French Open semifinalist.

Cornet followed up her upset of No. 3 Garbine Muguruza by reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time since 2009.

In another third-round match ending Saturday afternoon, 27th-seeded Danielle Collins of the U.S. rallied from a set and a break down to beat 19-year-old Clara Tauson 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.

Collins will next meet No. 19 Elise Mertens, who advanced 6-2, 6-2 over Zhang Shuai.

Later on Day 6, U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev was aiming to progress in his bid to become the first man in the Open era to win his second Grand Slam title at the major tournament that immediately follows his first such triumph.

Medvedev was the runner-up at Melbourne Park in 2021 and is seeded No. 2 this time.

He might as well as have a No. 1 next to his name, because top-ranked Novak Djokovic never played a point this year after failing in his attempt to get into the tournament despite not being vaccinated against COVID-19.

Medvedev faced 57th-ranked Botic van de Zandschulp on Saturday at Rod Laver Arena.

Australian Open director: Novak Djokovic’s hamstring had 3-cm tear

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said Novak Djokovic played at the Grand Slam event with a muscle tear of 3 centimeters – a little more than an inch – in his left hamstring along the way to winning the championship.

“He gets a bad rap, but at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone can question his athleticism. This guy, I did see, he had a 3-centimeter tear in his hammy,” Tiley said in an interview.

“The doctors are … going to tell you the truth,” Tiley said. “I think there was a lot of speculation of whether it was true or not. It’s hard to believe that someone can do what they do with those types of injuries. But he’s remarkable.”

Djokovic won the trophy at Melbourne Park by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets for a record-extending 10th title there and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam trophy overall. Rafael Nadal is the only other man who has won that many majors.

The triumph also allowed Djokovic to return to No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

The 35-year-old from Serbia hurt his hamstring during a tune-up tournament in Adelaide ahead of the Australian Open. He wore a heavy bandage on his left thigh and was visited by trainers during matches in Week 1 in Melbourne.

He said he took “a lot” of painkiller pills and did various treatments to help the leg.

“Let me put it like this: I don’t say 100%, but 97% of the players, when you get results of the MRI, you go straight to the referee’s office and pull out of the tournament,” Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said after the final. “But not him. … His brain is working different.”

Aryna Sabalenka wins 1st Grand Slam title at Australian Open

2023 Australian Open - Day 13
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MELBOURNE, Australia – One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself – and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.’ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

“I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions,” she said, “and win this one.”

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy – she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check – she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now – is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph (195 kph), Sabalenka’s at 119 mph (192 kph).

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”