Rafael Nadal Wins Number Eleven - UBITENNIS
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Rafael Nadal Wins Number Eleven

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Rafael Nadal (zimbio.com)

By Cheryl Jones

 

 

Last year Spanish dynamo, Rafael Nadal made history. He became the first man to win ten titles in a Single Grand Slam. This year, much as the last several years, he arrived at the same location, at the same time. There was a bit of a surprise waiting across the net. It wasn’t one of the usual “other” three – (They are Roger Federer who chose not to be here this year. Andy Murray is recovering from an injury isn’t here either. Novak Djokovic left early, having been defeated by an Italian upstart, Marco Cecchinato.) – who all have for quite a number of years consistently been his opponents as tournaments played on all surfaces are thinned to the last few before a champion is crowned. Actually it was because there’s a new guy in town and he’s from Austria.

Dominic Thiem is a twenty-four-year-old who owns a flowingly swift backhand and a complete grab bag of perfect shots that much to the consternation of other players are outright winners most of the time. Thiem is from Wiener Neustadt. He’s been playing tennis since he was six years old. When he became a professional in 2011, he was touted as someone to watch by most tennis aficionados who pay attention to upcoming stars. It was a good call. His performance in the 2018 Roland Garros battle on clay has been steady and brilliant all at the same time. He whittled away at the lineup on his side of the draw in Paris and after defeating the top “Next Gen” player Alexander “Sascha” Zverev, he moved on to Italian, Cecchinato in the semifinals, and even though the Italian player had vanquished Djokovic in the quarterfinals he was no match for the stealthy Austrian.

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To gain his now very familiar place, on Roland Garros’ final Sunday, Nadal managed to defeat an equal number of players along his way and when the two men strolled on to the court, the crowd went wild. They were looking forward to a great match, and they got one.

On paper the match itself appeared close. In reality, no matter how well the Austrian returned, Nadal had an answer that was served with exclamation points. Midway in the third set, Nadal moved to his sideline seat and yanked at the bandage that has been encircling his wrist the entire tournament. (When he was asked about the bandages earlier in the tournament, he said it was due to the humidity and the perspiration that might incidentally flow onto his hands and then his blister prone fingers.) He also tried pulling the wraps of adhesive tape that covered several of the fingers on his left hand, and when a medical staff person arrived on the scene, Nadal grimaced as the intervener massaged his forearm. Nadal wasn’t really idle, he reached with his right hand into his racquet bag and pulled out a pill, which he downed with a bit of water and soon he was back on the court, minus a point that was deducted for the unscripted timeout. Each change over from that point forward was spent with the same medic massaging that same left forearm and Rafa continued to grimace and took yet another pill. It must have been traumatic for Nadal and Thiem, too. Quite soon, the match was complete and surprise, surprise – Rafael Nadal had won his eleventh Roland Garros. The 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 score was more than enough to ensure the historic win for Nadal.

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The Spaniard, as always, took a bite out of the Coupe des Mousquetaires and grinned from ear to ear for the cameras that were snapping shots from every direction. He held the trophy high and as he pulled it to his chest as the Spanish National Anthem played, he cried tears of joy and hugged the coupe closer and closed his eyes, likely already planning to add yet another coupe just like the ones already in his trophy case – next year. That would make it an even twelve, and his need for symmetry could be satisfied with the perfect arrangement. (In case anyone has missed his need for that balance just check out his water bottle line-up next time he’s on court.)

Thiem had nothing to regret about his performance this afternoon. Nadal has seldom allowed anything to be a roadblock in his path to the final during Roland Garros. At 32 years old, and now with eleven wins here, he has been nearly perfect each time he has competed in Paris.

Thiem was seeded seventh to Nadal’s number one. In 2011 when Nadal had won his sixth Coupe, Thiem was runner-up in the Junior Boys. He lost a squeaker to Bjorn Fratangelo of the United States, 3-6, 6-3, 8-6. Thiem took the loss in stride and won his next three singles tournament. He actually finished 2011 with a win in the Dunlop Orange Bowl. From that point forward, he has been on a march to his current number seven ranking.

He spoke at length about the match and praised Nadal’s astounding achievement. He had watched Nadal from the comfort of his sofa eleven years ago and nearly every year thereafter. When asked which he preferred, he smiled and said, “Physically I enjoyed more watching him on the couch.”

He went on to say that it was wonderful that he had made his way to a final and iterated that “Still, I’m disappointed. It was a final. I really wanted to win.”

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When asked if he was surprised that it took until the seventh game of the second set before the umpire warned Nadal about his usual “too much” time taken between points, he said, “I didn’t say something to him because I don’t ever have a watch, so I don’t know how many seconds anyone is taking.” (Rumbles overheard from many an onlooker have suggested a timer with a “bing” sounding when the approved 25 seconds have expired.) It didn’t seem to matter in the long run, though. The extra three minutes that Rafa took dealing with his confusing finger injury merely cost the Spaniard a point and evidently he may have ascertained it was somewhat a “cost of doing business” demerit.

In his after-match interview, he said that the problem with his hand was a confusing cramp in his middle finger. He felt as if the wrist wrap had impeded the circulation to that digit and it frightened him. Evidently it all worked out and when the match was over, he remained Number One in the world for yet another week.

For once, Nadal didn’t serve one ace. Thiem managed seven of them, but all to no avail. Thiem’s unforced errors were nearly double what the Spaniard’s were. In the end, all of the statistics were immaterial. Rafael Nadal is staying where he feels best – at the top of the heap – The King of Clay.

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Australian Open: Novak Djokovic Seals Final Showdown With Tsitsipas After Paul Victory

Novak Djokovic will look to capture his tenth Australian Open title on Sunday.

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Novak Djokovic (@atptour - Twitter)

Novak Djokovic is into the Australian Open final after a 7-5 6-1 6-2 victory over Tommy Paul.

 

Djokovic will have the chance to claim his tenth Australian Open title and his 22nd Grand Slam title after a dominant straight sets victory.

Paul gave a good account of himself in his first Grand Slam semi-final but was ultimately outmuscled by Djokovic.

Djokovic’s bid for history will now go through Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday.

Competing in his first Grand Slam semi-final, Paul settled into the match playing some dynamic tennis to force Djokovic into early errors.

Djokovic started the match in rather erratic fashion but managed to save a break point to hold in the opening game.

However the former world number one found his range eventually as some world-class returning capitalised on nerves from the American as he broke and held for a 3-0 lead.

The Serb’s variety in pace and depth of shot was too much for the American as he dictated the tempo of the rallies.

Once Paul held serve to settle into the match in the fourth game, Djokovic’s onslaught continued as another break in the next return game secured another break and a comfortable 5-1 lead.

What would follow would not be in the script though as Djokovic produced more and more errors with Paul’s stubborn and dynamic style finding confidence as he punched holes through the Serb’s game.

Djokovic couldn’t convert set point and was broken twice as Paul reeled off four games in a row to level the opening set at 5-5.

In the end Djokovic would produce his best tennis when it mattered most with the Serb holding to love and then breaking on his first opportunity to take a tight opening set 7-5.

Although the opening set was littered with errors and erratic from both players, Djokovic produced a consistent standard in the next two sets as he improved the level on serve.

Once again Djokovic took a 5-1 lead in the second set and despite late resilience from Paul, the Serb held his nerve to wrap up a two sets to love lead.

The world number 35 had his moments of world-class tennis but ultimately it was Djokovic who was too strong as a further two breaks of serve sealed his place in a tenth Australian Open final.

After the match Djokovic commented on the state of his hamstring injury, “It’s great, and perfect and 100%,” Djokovic gladly commented in his on-court interview.

“Yeah – we’ll say against Stefanos in two days! Of course you are not as fresh as at the beginning of the tournament but we put in a lot of of hours in the off season. I know what’s expected and I have been in so many positions in my career.

“It’s a great battle, with yourself and the opponent. Long rallies and you could feel the heavy legs in the first set but I was fortunate to hold my nerves. After that I was swinging through the ball more and I am just pleased to get through another final.”

Djokovic and Tsitsipas will face each other in a second Grand Slam final after Djokovic won the Roland Garros final in 2021 in five sets.

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Australian Open Daily Preview: The Men’s Semifinals

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On Friday in Melbourne, the men’s singles semifinals will be played.

On Friday in Melbourne, the men’s singles semifinals will be played.

 

Novak Djokovic is just two matches away from tying Rafael Nadal with 22 Major singles titles, the most-ever in men’s singles.  Djokovic is 18-0 in Australian Open semifinals and finals, and hasn’t lost a match in Australia in over five years.  Can anyone prevent the nine-time champion from winning this event for a 10th time?

In the semifinals, Djokovic faces Tommy Paul, who prior to this fortnight had never advanced beyond the fourth round at a Major.  In the other men’s semifinal, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is 0-3 in Australian Open semis, takes on Karen Khachanov, who is into his second semifinal in as many Majors.

Also on Friday, the women’s doubles semifinals will be played, as well as the mixed doubles championship match.  The women’s doubles semis include top singles names such as Barbora Krejcikova, Coco Gauff, and Jessica Pegula, while the mixed doubles final will serve as Sania Mirza’s retirement match.


Karen Khachanov (18) vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas (3) – Not Before 2:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Tsitsipas has achieved his fourth semifinal in Australia out of the last five years, but he is yet to advance farther.  And he’s only claimed one of 10 sets in his three previous Australian semis, losing to Rafael Nadal in 2019, and Daniil Medvedev in both 2021 and 2022.  Stefanos is now a perfect 9-0 in 2023, and has only dropped one set during this fortnight.

Khachanov is into his second consecutive Major semifinal.  The 26-year-old is vying for his first Slam final, and his first final at any event in over a year.  Karen has dropped two sets through five matches, and has now defeated three straight seeded players (Tiafoe, Nishioka, Korda).

Tsitsipas has dominated their rivalry to date, leading their head-to-head 5-0.  Four of those matches were on hard courts, and three of them were straight-set victories for the Greek.  As per Tennis Abstract, out of the 13 sets they’ve played, Karen has only managed to break seven times, while Stefanos has broken 17 times.  And with plenty of Greek support in the crowd at this event, Tsitsipas is a considerable favorite to reach his second Major final.


Novak Djokovic (4) vs. Tommy Paul – 7:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Djokovic has claimed 22 of his last 24 sets in Australian Open semifinals and finals, with the only two sets lost both coming in the 2020 final against Dominic Thiem.  His domination in the last two rounds of this tournament throughout his career is only rivaled by that of Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.  Despite the hamstring injury that Novak suffered leading up to this tournament, he has only dropped one set to this stage.  In his last six sets, he’s only allowed his opposition an average of two games per set.

Paul has taken advantage of an open quarter of the draw, in which seven of the eight seeds lost within the first two rounds (Ruud, Fritz, Zverev, Berrettini, Schwartzman, Kecmanovic, Davidovich Fokina).  Yet even as many pointed to Tommy as the favorite to make the semis amidst younger, inexperienced Americans in this quarter (Brooksby, Wolf, Shelton), Paul did not faulter.  The 25-year-old is one of the fastest players on tour, and will debut inside the top 20 on Monday.

In their first career meeting, of course Djokovic is a huge favorite.  Prior to this fortnight, Paul had only once reached the second week of a Major, when he advanced to the fourth round six months ago at Wimbledon.  As per ESPN’s Brad Gilbert, Novak has beefed up his forehand this fortnight, averaging five mph’s more on that wing than a year ago.  And he’s also been serving excellently – Djokovic has only been broken three times in the entire tournament, with all three breaks coming against Grigor Dimitrov.


Other Notable Matches on Friday:

Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna vs. Luisa Stefani and Rafael Motos – This is Mirza’s last event before retirement, following a storied doubles career where she has won three Majors in women’s doubles and three Majors in mixed doubles.  Her and Mahesh Bhupathi won this event as a team 14 years ago, the first of Sania’s six Slam titles.  Bopanna won the mixed doubles event at Roland Garros in 2017.  Stefani was a bronze medalist in women’s doubles at the Tokyo Olympics.  This is a first Major final for both her and Motos.

Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova (1) vs. Marta Kostyuk and Elena-Gabriela Ruse – Krejcikova and Siniakova have won six Majors as a team, three of which came last year, including this tournament.  This is Kostyuk and Ruse’s first event as a team since Roland Garros, where they made the quarterfinals.

Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara (10) vs. Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula (2) – Gauff and Pegula were finalists at Roland Garros last June.  This is Aoyama and Shibahara’s third Major semifinal, but they’re yet to go farther at a Slam.


Friday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Australian Open Daily Preview: The Women’s Semifinals

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Elena Rybakina on Tuesday in Melbourne (twitter.com/australianopen)

On Thursday night in Melbourne, the women’s singles semifinals will be played.

 

The first semifinal is a battle between two Major singles champions, as reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina takes on two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka.  The second semifinal sees four-time Slam semifinalist Aryna Sabalenka against Magda Linette, who had never advanced beyond the third round of a Major prior to this fortnight.

Also on Thursday, the men’s doubles semifinals will be played, starting at 1:00pm local time.


Elena Rybakina (22) vs. Victoria Azarenka (24) – 7:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Rybakina has only dropped one set to this stage, to last year’s finalist Danielle Collins in the third round.  She’s looking to defeat a third consecutive Major champion, after taking out Iga Swiatek and Jelena Ostapenko in the last two rounds.  And Elena is vying for her second final out of the last three Slams.

Azarenka dropped the opening set in both her third and fourth round matches, but still won both of those rather comfortably.  And in the quarterfinals, she soundly defeated World No.3 Jessica Pegula.  This is Vika’s first Australian Open semifinal in 10 years, since her back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.  Overall it’s her ninth Major semifinal, and she holds a record of 5-3 previously.  Though notably, she’s 5-0 in Major semis on hard courts.

Their only previous meeting occurred last March at Indian Wells, where Rybakina prevailed 6-3, 6-4.  However, at a tournament where Azarenka’s greatest success has happened, and in a round of hard court Majors where she’s been untouchable, it may be a big ask for Elena to overcome the two-time champion.  But it’s clear Rybakina feels she has something to prove, as she’s spoken openly regarding feeling slighted by the lack of ranking points, and lack of respectful scheduling, she’s received for her Wimbledon victory.  And these fast-playing courts in Melbourne reward her aggressive game.  I give Elena the slight edge to prevail on Thursday.


Magda Linette vs. Aryna Sabalenka (5) – Last on Rod Laver Arena

Sabalenka is now a perfect 9-0 to start the year, and 18-0 in sets.  As per ESPN, she is just the sixth woman to win her first four Major quarterfinals, joining the impressive company of Ann Jones, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Elena Dementieva, and Naomi Osaka.  However, Aryna is 0-3 in Slam semifinals, having lost all three of those matches 6-4 in the third.

Linette is one of the more surprising Major semifinalists in recent memory.  Prior to this event, she was just 18-29 lifetime at Slams, and 0-5 in the third round.  But the veteran has now defeated four seeded players in a row (Kontaveit, Alexandrova, Garcia, Pliskova), and has only dropped one set in doing so.

Sabalenka is 2-0 against Linette, with both matches taking place on hard courts, and neither match being close.  Five years ago in Tianjin, Aryna won 6-1, 6-3.  Two years ago at the Tokyo Olympics, Aryna won 6-2, 6-1.  But I expect Sabalenka to tighten up on Thursday, as she’s fully aware of her painful history in this round of Majors.  And her double fault issues of the past resurfaced a bit during Wednesday’s quarterfinal, striking nine in total.  Linette is a smart, steady player who can take advantage if Sabalenka begins to commit unforced errors, which she can often do in bunches.  Despite all that, I still favor the power game of Aryna, and her improved second serve, to advance her into her first Major final.


Other Notable Matches on Thursday:

Jeremy Chardy and Fabrice Martin vs. Hugo Nys and Jan Zielinski – Chardy and Martin took out the third-seeded team of Arevalo and Rojer in the last round.  Nys and Zielinski eliminated the second-seeded team of Ram and Salisbury earlier in the tournament.

Rinky Hijikata and Jason Kubler (WC) vs. Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos (8) – This is the Australian team of Hijikata and Kubler’s first event as a team, and they upset the top-seeded team of Koolhof and Skupski in the quarterfinals.  Granollers and Zeballos are looking to reach their third Major final of their partnership.


Thursday’s full Order of Play is here.

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