Novak Djokovic wins opener at Italian Open with vintage scrambling

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ROME ⁠— Still attempting to get his nearly unbeatable form back following his time away from the tour, Novak Djokovic took another step in the right direction with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Aslan Karatsev in his opening match at the Italian Open.

The top-ranked Djokovic, who is bidding for a sixth Rome title, showed off some vintage scrambling abilities late in the first set when he ran down one shot near the net post then sprinted back across the net to dig out a low backhand volley winner.

It was the type of point that Djokovic pulled off day after day last year when he came within one match of completing a calendar-year Grand Slam – sweeping all four major titles in the same year.

Playing on a court that is one of his favorites, Djokovic celebrated the point by making a gesture with his hands that urged the Campo Centrale crowd to applaud even louder – bringing many fans to their feet.

“You always hope you can play some exciting and attractive points and come out as a winner of those points and celebrate with the crowd,” Djokovic said. “That’s what the crowd is looking for – they’re looking for energy, excitement, fight and they want to see some good tennis.

“We had some nice points today. It’s always great to play in the colosseum of tennis,” the 20-time Grand Slam champion added.

It was a fairly clean performance for Djokovic, who had only 10 unforced errors to Karatsev’s 36.

Djokovic needs to reach the semifinals in Rome to stay No. 1. Otherwise, Daniil Medvedev will take the top spot and the top seed at the French Open, which starts in 12 days.

Djokovic missed several key tournaments earlier this year because he was not vaccinated against the coronavirus – which led to him being deported from Australia ahead of the year’s first Grand Slam.

Still seeking his first title of 2022, Djokovic lost the final in his home Serbia Open to Andrey Rublev then was beaten by 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz in the Madrid Open semifinals last weekend.

Djokovic will next face either three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka or compatriot Laslo Djere.

Also on the red clay courts of the Foro Italico, big-serving John Isner eliminated Miami Open semifinalist Francisco Cerundolo 6-4, 6-3 and will next face 10-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal.

Diego Schwartzman, a finalist in Rome two years ago, saved two match points before eliminating Miomir Kecmanovic 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (3).

Grigor Dimitrov beat American qualifier Brandon Nakashima 6-3, 6-4 and will next face fourth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Sebastian Baez, who recently won a clay-court title in Estoril, Portugal, extended his winning streak to eight matches with a 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-2 victory over fellow qualifier Tallon Griekspoor. Baez next plays Alexander Zverev.

In the women’s tournament, there was a first-round matchup later between two U.S. Open winners – reigning champion Emma Raducanu and Bianca Andreescu, who raised the trophy in 2019.

Also, Madrid Open runner-up Jessica Pegula rallied past Liudmila Samsonova 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

American qualifiers Madison Brengle and Lauren Davis both advanced in straight sets. Brengle beat fellow qualifier Marta Kostyuk 6-4, 6-3 and Davis defeated 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 6-2, 6-3.

Amanda Anisimova, another American and a French Open semifinalist in 2019, held off Czech qualifier Tereza Martincova 6-2, 0-6, 6-4 and will next play Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic.

Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, was beaten 6-1, 6-2 by Ekaterina Alexandrova.

Nakashima takes first ATP Tour title at San Diego

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SAN DIEGO – Brandon Nakashima earned his first ATP Tour victory in his hometown, beating friend and fellow Southern Californian Marcos Giron 6-4, 6-4 in the San Diego Open final.

“It’s super-special, something you dream of, but to have it happen in my hometown with all my friends and family here, it’s a moment I’ll never forget,” said Nakashima, who had two previous finals appearances. “I hope there are many more moments like this to come.”

Nakashima, a 21-year-old who grew up in San Diego and trained extensively at the event’s site as a junior, clinched the opening set in only 30 minutes. The second set, filled with lengthy rallies, took nearly an hour.

Giron, the No. 5 seed and former NCAA title winner from UCLA, wasn’t able to fend off Nakashima’s persistent ground strokes and well-placed serves. Nakashima had eight aces, six in the first set.

Serving at 5-4 in the second set, Nakashima tallied the match’s deciding two points when Giron pushed an easy volley into the net, followed by Nakashima’s second-serve ace.

He earned $93,090, about half of what received for reaching the third round of the U.S. Open in early September.

Nakashima, who was ranked No. 69 on the ATP Tour, moved up to 48, his highest ranking in nearly three years on tour. Despite the loss, Giron moved up to 53 from 58.

Not only was the singles title claimed by an American, the doubles title also taken by an American duo as the second-seeded pair of Nathaniel Lammons and Jackson Withrow defeated Australians Jason Kubler and Luke Saville 7-6 (5), 6-2.

The $612,00 event was held at Barnes Tennis Center, which next hosts the $757,900 WTA 500 San Diego Open, Oct. 8-16. That will feature 16 of the world’s top-ranked 20 women pros, led by No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

Frances Tiafoe lifts Team World to 1st Laver Cup win

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LONDON — The last to arrive, befitting his reputation in the locker room, Frances Tiafoe strutted into the post-match news conference after clinching Team World’s Laver Cup victory over Roger Federer’s star-studded Team Europe and shouted, “Champs are here!”

Then the 24-year-old from Maryland joined his teammates at the table where the silver trophy was resting Sunday night, put down a bottle of water, pulled a Budweiser out of his red jacket and smiled that wide smile of his.

Performing with the same infectious showmanship and crunch-time success he displayed en route to his first Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open earlier this month, Tiafoe staved off four match points and came back to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 1-6, 7-6 (11), 10-8, giving Team World its first triumph in five editions of an event founded by Federer’s management company.

“I don’t like losing,” said Federer, a 20-time major champion whose final match before retirement was a loss alongside Rafael Nadal in doubles against Tiafoe and Jack Sock on Friday night. “It’s not fun. It just leaves not the best taste.”

When Tsitsipas put a forehand into the net to end Sunday’s contest – and the three-day competition – Tiafoe dropped his racket and fell to his back on the court, where teammates piled atop him. After getting on his feet, Tiafoe cupped a hand to his ear, asking spectators for more noise, then pointed to his chest and yelled, “I’m him! I’m him!”

“When it becomes a circus out here, and I’m just using the crowd and acting like a little kid and having a bunch of reactions … I end up playing really well and I start building momentum off it,” Tiafoe said. “I’m able to play and function in that better than my opponents, it seems.”

Using the nickname other players gave Tiafoe to reflect the way he embraces big moments, Team World captain John McEnroe said: “Frances is `Prime Time.’ He loves this stuff.”

McEnroe had been 0-4 while leading his squad against his former playing rival, Team Europe captain Bjorn Borg; both indicated they would be back for the 2023 Laver Cup in Vancouver, but that might be their last go-round.

This one served as a celebration of Federer and the 41-year-old Swiss star’s career.

Tiafoe responded with a quip when asked whether he might owe Federer some form of “I’m sorry” for beating him in his finale or for defeating his team, which also included Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray for a total of 66 major singles titles. That, incidentally, is 66 more than Team World, a collection of 20-somethings (Sock turned 30 on Saturday).

“”I’m not going to apologize to him. He’s got a lot to apologize for after the last 24 years – after beating everybody on the tour,” said Tiafoe, who went 0-3 against Federer in singles head-to-head. “I will say thank you for having me in this amazing event, what he’s done for the game. He’s a class act. Happy to know him, happy to call him a friend, happy to call him a colleague, and best wishes in his second act. But I will not apologize.”

Team Europe entered Sunday at O2 Arena with an 8-4 lead; the first team to 13 points would win.

Each match on Day 3 was worth three points, and Team World went ahead thanks to a pair of victories by Felix Auger-Aliassime, a 22-year-old from Canada. He beat Djokovic 6-3, 7-6 (3), after partnering with Sock to edge Murray and Matteo Berrettini 2-6, 6-3, 10-8 in doubles.

Tiafoe then made it 13-8, but it wasn’t easy.

He went a tournament-record 8-0 in tiebreakers at Flushing Meadows this month and was just as resilient Sunday.

“It’s been a long time that Frances has been playing the big guys close and losing a lot of close battles. It’s great to see lately he’s been winning,” said Taylor Fritz, an American who is the same age as Tiafoe and has known him for years. “It’s about time that he steps up and the matches go the other way. Today was a joke.”

That’s because Tiafoe was a single point from losing to Tsitsipas four times in their second-set tiebreaker, but somehow got through that. Then, at 4-all in the concluding match tiebreaker – first to 10, win by two – Tiafoe sprinted from behind the baseline to near the net and barely got to a drop shot by Tsitsipas, somehow lunging to flick an angled winner.

While most of the 16,365 fans went wild, Tiafoe went around the net and stood still, hands on his hips, relishing the atmosphere.

“We put him in the slot that he was in today for a reason,” said Team World’s Tommy Paul, another 24-year-old American, “and he stepped up for us, big time.”