Nadal bounces back from loss to Alcaraz, beats Isner in Rome

Internazionali BNL D'Italia 2022 - Day Four
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ROME – Once is enough when it comes to beating Rafael Nadal on a clay court.

Throughout his career, Nadal has never lost consecutive matches on his favorite surface and the Spaniard extended that perfect record by beating John Isner 6-3, 6-1 to reach the third round of the Italian Open.

Nadal was coming off a loss to 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz in the Madrid Open quarterfinals last week. After a first-round bye, he improved to 44-0 in matches on clay following a loss on the surface.

Perhaps more importantly, Nadal regained some confidence as he works his way back from a rib stress fracture that kept him out for six weeks before the tournament in Madrid.

While he would clearly love to add to his record total of 10 Italian Open titles, Nadal’s bigger objective is regaining his top form in time for the French Open, which starts in less than two weeks. Nadal has won 13 of his 21 Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros.

When the match finished, Nadal headed straight to the practice court to hit more balls. He explained that he’s a “bit in a rush” to find his best form “as soon as possible.”

“I need to work as much as I can,” Nadal said. “The match today was not that demanding physically.”

It was essentially decided during one brief stretch.

Nadal struggled on his serve at 3-3 in the first set, missing a forehand into the net then double-faulting to set up break points for Isner. But the American made unforced errors on both of his break-point opportunities and Nadal eventually held.

In the following game, Nadal broke Isner’s serve when the 6-foot-10 American missed a comfortable forehand volley into the net. Nadal then held at love to close out the first set and broke Isner’s serve in the opening game of the second.

“I finished better than I started – without a doubt,” Nadal said. “He had some chances on the returns. I was in his hands in that moment. Lucky that he missed those shots.”

Nadal improved to 19-0 against Americans on clay, having been forced to a deciding set only twice – both times by Isner, who pushed Nadal to five sets at the 2011 French Open and three sets at the 2015 Monte Carlo Masters.

Up next, Nadal meets Denis Shapovalov, the Canadian he beat at the same stage last year in a grueling three-set comeback victory in which the Spaniard saved two match points.

“Super lucky,” Nadal said, reflecting back to playing Shapovalov last year. “I know how dangerous he is. I need to play better than today.”

Three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka, playing only his second tournament after more than a year out following two surgeries on his left foot, edged Laslo Djere 7-6 (8), 3-6, 6-4 to set up a meeting with top-ranked Novak Djokovic.

“It’s going to be really difficult for me, because I’m not ready to compete – I think – at that level,” Wawrinka said of facing Djokovic. “But it’s what I need. I need those challenges. I need to push myself as much as I can to keep improving.”

Wawrinka had loud support from a packed crowd on the picturesque Pietrangeli court, which is lined with statues.

“The reason why after two surgeries, one year out, I’m still playing tennis at 37 years old is to live those moments as much as I can,” Wawrinka said. “I’m enjoying it a lot.”

Second-seeded Alexander Zverev, who was routed by Alcaraz in the Madrid final on Sunday, beat Sebastian Baez 7-6 (6), 6-3 to end the Argentine qualifier’s eight-match winning streak.

Also, Stefanos Tsitsipas saved two match points before getting past Grigor Dimitrov 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (4); and Marcos Giron, an American qualifier, picked up his fourth win and five days by beating 2020 finalist Diego Schwartzman 6-1, 7-6 (4).

In an all-Italian matchup during the night session on Campo Centrale, 20-year-old Jannik Sinner beat 34-year-old Fabio Fognini 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

Wearing a ribbon with the colors of Ukraine’s flag pinned to her hat, defending women’s champion Iga Swiatek extended her winning streak to 24 matches with a 6-3, 6-0 victory over Romanian qualifier Elena-Gabriela Ruse.

The top-ranked player from Poland will next face former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, who beat Camila Osorio 6-2, 6-4.

Ons Jabeur, coming off her maiden 1000 title in Madrid, defeated Ajla Tomljanovic 7-5, 6-2.

Also, 2019 French Open semifinalist Amanda Anisimova eliminated Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic 7-6 (5), 6-1; and Coco Gauff, who reached the semifinals a year ago, defeated fellow American Madison Brengle 6-2, 6-4.

Madrid finalist Jessica Pegula advanced when Anhelina Kalinina withdrew before their match because of an upper back injury. The American will next face third-seeded Aryna Sabalenka.

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?”