Rafael Nadal likens his body to ‘an old machine’ at Italian Open

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ROME — At 35 and after nearly two decades at or near the top of tennis, Rafael Nadal likens his body to “an old machine.”

A machine that was idle for more than a month recently when the 21-time Grand Slam champion was recovering from a rib stress fracture.

After he was injured during a semifinal win over Carlos Alcaraz at Indian Wells in March, Nadal returned to action at the Madrid Open last week, when he was beaten by the 19-year-old Spaniard in the quarterfinals.

Nadal won his opening 20 matches of the year, which included the Australian Open title, but he said at the Italian Open on Monday that his stretch of good form means nothing now.

“My body is like an old machine. To put this machine on again it takes some time,” Nadal said. “It’s not the same when you (are) 19 than when you have almost 36, with all the issues that I went through in my tennis career.

“You need to build again the confidence on your body, on your movements, then you going to start feeling again comfortable with your tennis. It’s more about being confident with my movements, recover the speed, recover the way that I have to play on clay.”

Nadal, who turns 36 on June 3, is playing his final warmup in Rome this week before attempting to add to his record total of 13 French Open titles.

The tournament at Roland Garros starts in less than two weeks.

“I need some time, but maybe this week can be a positive week, maybe not. Who knows?” Nadal said. “The only thing that is sure, I’m going to keep trying and I’m going to keep building confidence to try to be ready for next week, for in two weeks. That’s my goal unfortunately this year, because I didn’t have another chance to approach this clay-court season with all the things that I went through.”

Nadal, who has won the Italian Open a record 10 times, will open at the Foro Italico against either big-serving American John Isner or Argentine qualifier Francisco Cerundolo, who reached the semifinals of the Miami Open.

SWIATEK’S STREAK

Top-ranked Iga Swiatek is back on tour looking to extend her 23-match winning streak and defend her Rome title.

Swiatek sat out last week’s Madrid Open because of a sore arm after winning four consecutive titles.

She said she spent “five or six days” without picking up her racket.

“It’s pretty good to have (an) opportunity to do something like that in between tournaments, in the middle of the season,” Swiatek said. “I’m more fresh. Mentally and physically, I had time to rest.”

Swiatek then trained for five days at Rafael Nadal’s academy in Mallorca, Spain, which gave her an opportunity to visit the Nadal museum.

“It was inspiring,” Swiatek said. “Seeing numbers on Wikipedia is one thing, but seeing all the trophies, how consistent he was sometimes in some tournaments, it’s amazing.”

Swiatek, the 2020 French Open champion, routed Karolina Pliskova 6-0, 6-0 in last year’s Rome final. She’ll open against either one of two Americans: Shelby Rogers or Alison Riske.

DJOKOVIC’S SECOND HOME

Five-time Italian Open champion Novak Djokovic calls Rome his “second home.”

“In terms of support that I’ve been getting, in terms of the sensation I have every time I come back here. I think speaking a little bit of Italian helps connect with people,” the top-ranked Serb said. “Italian mentality is close to Serbian mentality in terms of passion, emotions. So it’s always a joy for me to come back.”

Djokovic, who lost to Nadal in last year’s Rome final, said his game is coming back after missing a large portion of the season because of his refusal to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Djokovic lost to Alcaraz in a third-set tiebreaker in the Madrid semifinals on Saturday.

“It’s closer to desired level every week,” Djokovic said. “Even after (an) almost 3 1/2-hour battle against Alcaraz, I recovered well the next day, was ready to go. That’s a positive and encouraging factor prior to Rome and also, of course, the big goal, which is Paris.”

JABEUR MANIA

Ons Jabeur’s Madrid Open title is still reverberating around the Middle East.

“The Michael Jackson of the Arab world kind of texted me,” Jabeur said, referring to Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama. “It’s a great honor for me.”

The seventh-ranked Tunisian, the first Arab female or male to make the top 10, also received a congratulatory message from Tunisian-Italian rapper Ghali.

“I love his work, his songs,” Jabeur said. “He was really proud. It’s amazing. I hope to see him here in Italy.”

Jabeur faces Sorana Cirstea in the first round.

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?”