Opelka beats Isner in Houston for first clay title

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HOUSTON – Reilly Opelka beat fellow American John Isner 6-3, 7-6 (7) to win the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship in the tallest matchup in an ATP Tour final.

The 6-foot-11 Opelka won his fourth tour title and first on clay. He improved to 5-1 against the 6-10 Isner.

The 24-year-old Opelka, seeded third has won all his titles in the United States, taking the first in 2019 in an indoor event in New York and following at Delray Beach in 2020 and Dallas this year.

The 36-year-old Isner, seeded fourth, won in Houston in 2013. He has 16 ATP Tour titles.

Djokovic enters French Open with chance to top absent Nadal with record 23rd Slam title

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PARIS — For quite some time, Novak Djokovic made his long-term goal clear: He wanted to focus on accumulating Grand Slam titles in order to surpass the totals of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

With the French Open set to start without either Nadal (who is injured) or Federer (who is retired) for the first time since 1998, Djokovic finally gets the chance to lead the career standings alone with a men’s-record 23. If he winds up with the championship two weeks from now, Djokovic would break a tie with Nadal and have three more trophies than Federer finished with.

“It’s no secret that one of the main reasons I play today and compete in professional tennis is to try to break more records and make more history in tennis,” Djokovic said. “That’s extremely motivating and inspiring for me.”

His current collection of 22 majors – two at Roland Garros, in 2016 and 2021; three at the U.S. Open; seven at Wimbledon and 10 at the Australian Open, including this January – means he owns 16 more than the other 127 men in the bracket in Paris combined. Stan Wawrinka won three, while Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem have one apiece.

“Grand Slams are a different tournament, a different sport, in a way, because you’re playing best-of-five (sets), you are playing in the most important tournaments in the world,” said Djokovic, a 36-year-old from Serbia, “and the experience is on my side.”

It’s why when other players are asked who enters as the favorite in Nadal’s absence, they often mention two names: Alcaraz, who is ranked No. 1 and is 20-2 with a tour-high three titles on red clay in 2023, and Djokovic, who is just 5-3 this season on the surface used at the French Open.

Why point to Djokovic?

“Because Novak has won so many times,” said Casper Ruud, the runner-up to Nadal at Roland Garros and to Alcaraz at the U.S. Open last year. “This year’s clay season has been maybe not what he expected, but I’m sure he has good confidence in myself.”

Djokovic, for his part, pronounced the 20-year-old Alcaraz as “the biggest favorite,” citing “the last few months, and the kind of shape and the form that he’s having – and that I’m having.”

Djokovic is ranked No. 3 and could meet Alcaraz only in the semifinals.

The player with a chance to become the only man in tennis history with at least three titles from each major also mentioned several other contenders, including Ruud, Daniil Medvedev, Holger Rune, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Jannik Sinner.

Djokovic was in something of a contemplative mood on the eve of the event, explaining how much harder things are on his body at this age and that he views each Slam tournament he competes in nowadays “like a present” (leaving aside any discussion of majors he missed because he didn’t get vaccinated against COVID-19).

His most heartfelt comments came when he was asked about Nadal, the 14-time champion in Paris who has been sidelined since January with a hip injury.

After beginning with a joke that made reference to Nadal’s 8-2 edge head-to-head at Roland Garros – “Honestly, I don’t miss him being in the draw, you know” – Djokovic turned more serious.

He reflected on their intertwined paths and said he got emotional when hearing Nadal say 2024 probably will be his final year on tour.

“He’s my biggest rival. When he announced that he’s going to have his last season of his career, I felt part of me is leaving with him, too, if you know what I mean,” Djokovic said.

“I feel that he was one of the most, I would say, impactful people that I have ever had in my career, the growth of my career, and me as a player. Definitely a great motivational factor for me to keep playing and keep competing and keep pushing each other,” Djokovic continued. “Who’s going to achieve more? Who’s going to do better? It made me wonder. It made me think about my career and how long I’m going to play.”

And then he paused and smiled before delivering this line, perhaps for clarity’s sake, perhaps for the laughs he knew it would bring: “I’m not going to make any announcement today.”

Post-Serena, women’s tennis heads to French Open led by Big 3 of Swiatek, Sabalenka, Rybakina

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PARIS — All of those questions about who would step to the fore once Serena Williams walked away from the tennis tour – joining more recent No. 1 Ash Barty in retirement – seem to be getting answered with three names: Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina.

As the start of the French Open approaches, defending champion Swiatek is ranked No. 1, Sabalenka is No. 2 and Rybakina is No. 4. More to the point, perhaps, with a major trophy up for grabs on the red clay of Roland Garros: This group divvied up the past four Grand Slam titles, the prizes that help define greatness in their sport.

They are showing signs of forming a sort of “Big Three,” and while they’re not yet close, of course, to the level of dominance seen across decades from the so-called “Big Three” of the men’s game – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic each won more than 20 Slam championships – Swiatek, Sabalenka and Rybakina are beginning to be seen by some as setting up shop atop the WTA.

“They’ve kind of separated themselves a little bit from the rest of the pack,” said Jessica Pegula, a 29-year-old American who is ranked No. 3 and is a five-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, losing to Swiatek at that stage last year at the French Open and U.S. Open. “It just comes with the confidence of having a lot of big results and breaking through.”

Barbora Krejcikova, the 2021 French Open champion, put it simply: “They are the best three players that we have right now.”

Swiatek, a 21-year-old from Poland, is the reigning champion at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open; Sabalenka, a 25-year-old from Belarus, won the Australian Open this January by beating Rybakina in the final; Rybakina, a 23-year-old from Kazakhstan, won Wimbledon last July.

There’s more: At the two key U.S. hard-court tournaments this spring, Rybakina defeated Sabalenka in the final at Indian Wells, California, then was the runner-up in Miami. When the circuit moved to European clay, Swiatek got past Sabalenka in the final at Stuttgart, Germany, a result that was reversed when they met for the trophy again two weeks later in Madrid.

And at the last big clay tune-up for Roland Garros, Rybakina took the title in Rome after advancing when Swiatek stopped early in the third set of their quarterfinal with a right thigh injury (“Luckily, nothing serious happened,” Swiatek said).

“It’s good for tennis to see the top players consistently doing well. I think it’s pushing everybody to a next level and pushing everybody to do better and to play better. That’s how I was pushed by Iga last season,” Sabalenka said, referring to the way Swiatek compiled a 37-match winning streak that included six titles. “I think that’s something really important and good to see.”

These could be some riveting rivalries, in part because of the contrast in styles and personalities on display.

Swiatek and Rybakina are more reserved publicly. Sabalenka is never shy about letting her thoughts be known.

Swiatek is a master tactician who covers every inch of the court with defense that is as good as it gets. Sabalenka and Rybakina bring as much power as anyone around, starting with intimidating serves.

Rybakina is first on tour in aces this season with 278, a total more than 50 higher than any other woman. Sabalenka is third with 204. Swiatek rates second on tour (among women who have played at least five matches) by winning 48.6% of her return games in 2023.

“It’s nice to have somebody constantly kind of watching you. We played so many matches against each other that tactically we know (each other’s) game pretty well,” Swiatek said. “But we also have to kind of come up with some different solutions sometimes, which is pretty exciting, because I never had that yet in my career.”

And then, thinking about the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic matchups, she continued: “I think this is what the Big Three had to do, for sure, when they played like, I don’t know, 30 matches against each other or even more. So I’m happy to learn some new stuff. And also, for sure, we are all working really hard to kind of play better and better. It is an extra motivation, for sure.”

After defeating Swiatek 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the Madrid final three weeks ago, Sabalenka expressed a sentiment that surely is shared by the other two members of this elite trio.

“Hopefully,” Sabalenka said, “we can keep doing what we are doing this season.”