Djokovic, Russian players expected to compete at French Open

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Novak Djokovic will be allowed to play at the French Open even if he is not vaccinated against COVID-19 as long as the coronavirus situation in France remains stable, organizers said.

Russian tennis players, including top-ranked Daniil Medvedev, will also be admitted to play in the tournament but as neutral athletes because of the war started by their country in neighboring Ukraine.

Organizers said there is nothing at the moment preventing Djokovic from defending his title at the clay-court Grand Slam. France this week lifted measures requiring the need to wear face masks in most settings and allowing people who aren’t vaccinated back into restaurants, sports arenas and other venues.

“At this stage there is nothing to stop him returning to the courts,” French Open director Amelie Mauresmo said at a news conference.

Djokovic was deported from Australia in January after a legal battle over whether he should be allowed to enter the country, forcing him to miss the Australian Open. He told the BBC last month that he was willing to miss upcoming Grand Slam tournaments as well if they required him to get vaccinated.

Djokovic has won the French Open twice and has a total of 20 major titles, one short of the record held by Rafael Nadal after the Spaniard won this year’s Australian Open.

French tennis federation president Gilles Moretton said that although Djokovic is now free to play, French authorities might be forced to introduce new restrictions if the virus situation deteriorates before the tournament starts on May 22.

“It is not up to us,” Moretton said. “Today there is a little virus that is going around. We are quite confident that the lights are green, but we are all cautious about what has happened over the last two years.”

Asked whether Russian tennis players will be allowed to compete at the tournament in the light of the war in Ukraine, organizers said they plan to stick to decisions suspending Russia and ally Belarus but allowing their players to compete as neutral athletes.

The seven groups that run the sport around the world have condemned the war; canceled events in Russia and Belarus; kicked those two nations out of the Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup team competitions; and announced on March 1 that players from those countries will be allowed to compete in WTA, ATP and Grand Slam tournaments but not under the name or flag of Russia or Belarus.

“We are holding this line,” said Amelie Oudea-Castera, the French tennis federation director general.

Other sports, including track and field, soccer and figure skating, have barred Russian and Belarusian athletes from competition.

Wimbledon organizers are having conversations with the British government about whether Russian players should be allowed to compete at the grass-court tournament this year if they don’t distance themselves from President Vladimir Putin.

Oudea-Castera said French organizers don’t plan to start a detailed and individualized analysis of players’ individual situations, which “can be extraordinarily dependent on the family situations experienced by each of them.”

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the day Medvedev was assured of moving atop the ATP rankings for the first time while competing at the Mexico Open.

“Watching the news from home, waking up here in Mexico, was not easy,” Medvedev said then. “By being a tennis player, I want to promote peace all over the world. We play in so many different countries; I’ve been in so many countries as a junior and as a pro. It’s just not easy to hear all this news. … I’m all for peace.”

Without any outdoor restrictions in place, Moretton said he expects the Roland Garros venues to be used at “maximum capacity” this year after the previous two editions were affected by the pandemic. Tickets went on sale this month, and Moretton said about 500,000 seats out of the 600,000 available for the day sessions have already been sold.

For the 10 night sessions on Court Philippe Chatrier, only 50,000 tickets remain available from the 150,000 on sale.

“We will be very happy to be back together, we are delighted,” Moretton said.

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

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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?”