Auger-Aliassime joins Shapovalov in quarterfinals

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia – Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov are enjoying quite a run in the Australian sun.

For the first time, two Canadian men have reached the Australian Open quarterfinals.

Auger-Aliassime wore down 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic 2-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2, 7-6 (4) to join Shapovalov in the last eight.

“I lost three times to Marin. He’s going to come out with his best level and make me earn my win and I’m happy to get through, particularly the way I did it,” the 21-year-old, No. 9-seeded Auger-Aliassime said. “The sun here in Australia hits you pretty hard (but) I feel good.”

The Canadians tuned up for the Australian Open by winning the ATP Cup in Sydney earlier this month, the pair winning their singles matches to defeat Spain in final.

The 22-year-old Shapovalov will play 20-time major winner Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals on Tuesday in the top half of the men’s bracket. Auger-Aliassime will play U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev on Wednesday.

WHERE IS PENG SHUAI?

Tennis great Martina Navratilova and French player Nicolas Mahut have joined the criticism of Australian Open organizers following a crackdown on activists wearing T-shirts and unfurling banners at the tournament to support Chinese player Peng Shuai.

Mahut said the order for spectators to remove the banners and T-shirts came as Melbourne Park carries signage for 1573, a Chinese distillery.

“What’s going on!?” What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors (hash)1573. beyond disappointed” Mahut posted on social media.

The Chinese government has been accused of “disappearing” tennis player Peng Shuai after she made a sexual assault allegation late last year against a close ally of President Xi Jinping.

The WTA, which runs the women’s tennis tour, has responded by saying it won’t play any tournaments in China this year.

Navratilova, a three-time Australian Open singles champion, added her voice to those condemning the censorship when she tweeted: “That’s just pathetic. The (at)wta stands pretty much alone on this!!!”

Mahut, who was seeded seventh in the Australian Open men’s doubles competition with compatriot Fabrice Martin, and Navratilova were outraged by footage screened on Sunday of security and police requesting a fan remove a shirt which featured an image of Peng on the front and “Where is Peng Shuai?” on the back.

Tennis Australia responded initially by stating that such attire breached its rule on “political messaging.”

In a further response Monday to the social media backlash, Tennis Australia said it understood “people have strongly held personal and political views on a range of issues.”

“Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern. We continue to work with the WTA and the global tennis community to do everything we can to ensure her well-being,” the statement said. “Our work is ongoing and through the appropriate channels.

“To ensure that the Australian Open remains a welcoming, safe and inclusive event for everyone, we have a longstanding policy of not allowing banners, signs or clothing that are commercial or political.”

After advancing to the quarterfinals, veteran French player Alize Cornet said “I think that everybody should, like, be able to manifest their support to Peng Shuai.” Asked about the issue at a daily briefing in Beijing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China was “always opposed to the politicization of sports.”

“Such actions are unpopular and will never succeed,” Zhao said.

FLYING THE FLAG

Iran has its first female winner in a Grand Slam tournament with Meshkatolzahra Safi’s advance in the Australian Open girls singles event.

Safi emphasized the message to “don’t give up on your dreams” after beating local qualifier Anja Nayar to set up a second-round match against eighth-seed Sofia Costoulas of Belgium.

Inspired by watching Rafael Nadal on television, Safi is determined to forge a path for others to follow in Iran where soccer is the major sporting passion.

Safi started playing through the ITF program Junior Tennis Initiative and won six of seven finals during 12 tournaments last year.

“I really had tough times. Playing professional tennis in my country is really hard. I had a really tough time playing tournaments, I couldn’t get visas, I didn’t have sponsors a lot of times. I didn’t have a chance to get a lot of points because I couldn’t play tournaments,” she said.

“In my country, if you ask which sport you like, they say football. I was watching (Nadal) with my mother, we were curious, is there any tennis in Iran? We can just try.”

Safi wears the traditional head covering and long pants which is difficult with the searing temperatures on Melbourne Park’s hard courts.

“I like the sun, but not this much. I’m used to this hijab and this covering. I’ve been playing with this since I was nine. Today was really, really difficult . but I’m used to it (the hijab) and it doesn’t bother me,” she said.

The 17-year-old Safi, who’s ranked 74 in juniors, has a goal to play all four Grand Slam junior events this year. The next step is to get a visa for the French Open to continue to boost her ranking for the main singles draws.

“I just really want to say don’t give up on your dreams. When I start my journey, everyone in Iran was saying this is impossible, you cannot do that. I just kept pushing. Believe in your dreams,” she said.

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?”