Steve Flink’s Overview Of The 2022 Men's French Open Tournament - UBITENNIS
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Steve Flink’s Overview Of The 2022 Men’s French Open Tournament

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Erudite followers of Rafael Nadal have long appreciated that the eminent Spaniard has understood— perhaps better than anyone else— that ruling in the kingdom of tennis and becoming a champion of the highest order is entirely up to the individual. Nadal came upon us toward the end of his teens with a brand of exuberance and unbridled energy that was unlike anyone or anything the sport had yet seen. He matured during his twenties into a sublime match player, a dynamic physical force and a supreme competitor refusing to sell himself short, yet simultaneously displaying immense respect for his rivals and taking absolutely nothing for granted.

 

Over the course of his thirties, Nadal has widened his arsenal of aggression, wisened his ways of moving through matches more economically and efficiently, and lengthened his career well beyond what either he or his longtime legion of admirers ever thought would be possible. Time and again, often against almost insurmountable odds, sometimes staring straight into the cold face of reality, Nadal has confronted his ever present inner doubts as well as growing skepticism among the public, fellow players and the media who have continuously questioned his capacity to keep taking the highest honors in the game with a body that seems to be breaking down too often.

And yet, here he is again, victorious once more in the clay court capital of the world after a harrowing couple of weeks suffering from an ailing foot, quietly defiant about who he is and what he could accomplish, and above all an unassailable professional realizing another dream on the Parisian clay. He did all of this despite needing injections prior to every Roland Garros match to kill the considerable pain and numb his burdensome foot as he battles Mueller-Weiss Syndrome, a rare degenerative bone condition. When all was said and done over the past fortnight, it was Nadal who was the last man standing, Nadal who collected a 14th French Open crown and a 22nd Grand Slam title, Nadal who raised his sparkling Roland Garros career match record to 112-3.

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He was once one of the youngest player to succeed in Paris but now the redoubtable Spaniard is the oldest French Open men’s champion at the age of 36. To put his towering accomplishment more fully into perspective, consider this: Nadal collected his first title at 19 in 2005. He captured eight more championships at that hallowed venue across his twenties, and now he has taken five more in his thirties. They call that enduring excellence. Some might even say that kind of success over such a long stretch is unimaginable.

Making his latest triumph all the more remarkable is that Nadal had come into Indian Wells unbeaten in 2022. He had played only one match in 2021 after losing to Novak Djokovic in the Roland Garros semifinals before his foot condition caused Nadal to shut his season down in August. Few were taking his chances seriously at the 2022 Australian Open, even after he won an ATP 250 warmup tournament in Melbourne. But, astonishingly, Nadal rallied from two sets down and 2-3, 0-40 in the third set against Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final, coming through strikingly in five exhilarating sets.

He then won Acapulco for his third title in a row before losing in the final at Indian Wells to Taylor Fritz. But he had cracked a rib in his semifinal against Carlos Alcaraz. That kept him out for about a month and severely disrupted his clay court schedule leading up to Roland Garros. He played only two tournaments and they did not go well. Beaten by Alcaraz in the quarterfinals of Madrid, he went to Rome and bowed out in the round of 16 against Denis Shapovalov in three sets. In the final set, Nadal was barely moving as his foot acted up flagrantly.

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He then announced that his Spanish doctor would come to Paris but no one knew if the inimitable left-hander would be able to perform anywhere near the peak of his powers. Fortunately for this practical individual, his draw was initially kind. He cast aside the Australian Jordan Thompson, French wildcard Corentin Moutet and No 26 seed Botic Van De Zandschulp of the Netherlands without the loss of a set. He was not letter perfect in those three matches, yet his court mobility was surprisingly good.

But Nadal was stretched close to his limits in the round of 16 by No. 9 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in an absorbing confrontation. The Canadian is, of course, coached by Rafa’s “Uncle Toni” Nadal, the man who essentially raised Rafa as a player and coached him for so long on the tour. Nadal and Auger-Aliassime had not met since Toni Nadal started coaching the Canadian. Uncle Toni chose to sit in a neutral location behind the court rather than with the Auger-Aliassime inner circle. He was glued to that seat through a long and gut-wrenching afternoon.

Nadal started inauspiciously, falling behind 5-1 in the first set, although he made it closer before conceding it. The next couple of sets were controlled completely by Nadal, who started finding openings to break the big server and found his range from the back of the court. But Nadal inexplicably lost his serve after being ahead 40-0 in the second game of the fourth set. Although he broke back, he still lost that set as the Canadian reestablished his attacking rhythm.

The match went to 3-3 in the fifth set. But at that propitious moment, Nadal summoned his finest tennis, taking 12 of 15 points and three consecutive games with a flourish, prevailing 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in four hours and twenty one minutes. He was most sprightly in that contest at the very end. Nevertheless, Nadal fans were surely feeling consternation as he approached a quarterfinal confrontation with top seeded Novak Djokovic.

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The Serbian is the only player to topple Nadal twice on the sacred grounds of Roland Garros, including a come from behind, four set semifinal victory a year ago on his way to a second French Open crown. He had gradually found his game and recovered his self conviction in recent weeks, losing narrowly to Alcaraz in a dandy of an encounter at Madrid in the penultimate round, then winning Rome without the loss of a set.

Confident after securing his sixth Italian Open title, Djokovic rolled through the first four rounds at Roland Garros without the loss of a set, and was particularly impressive in taking apart No. 15 seed Diego Schwatzman 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 in the round of 16. It seemed entirely possible that Djokovic could repeat his 2021 win over Nadal considering that he was so fresh and seemingly self assured, while Nadal had labored long and hard against Auger-Aliassime in their five set skirmish.

Nadal and Djokovic met in the evening, giving the Serbian an advantage according to some authorities because Nadal’s topspin artillery is more effective under a hot sun in daytime. But that theory ignored the fundamental fact that Nadal these days can flatten out the forehand and drive it up the line at blazing speeds with uncanny accuracy. Moreover, Djokovic’s serve was clearly diminished in the evening air.

Nadal came out of the blocks firing rockets off the forehand while Djokovic seemed willing to rely too much on defense—even on his own serve. The passivity of Djokovic at the outset was very costly as Nadal, scintillating and unrelenting off the forehand, took the first set convincingly 6-2 and built a 3-0, two service break lead in the second. The Spaniard had won 9 of 11 games and Djokovic looked dazed, subdued and out of sorts.

Be that at it may, the top seed found the inner spark he needed and at long last started hitting out freely and combating the No. 5 seed Nadal with thundering shots off both sides, blasting winners  and taking the initiative away from Nadal. Although he had to fight through a few exceedingly long games, Djokovic secured the second set 6-4 with his much needed aggression off the ground, showing more animation in the process.

And yet, Djokovic’s did not maintain his controlled aggression and Nadal typically was not devastated by his second set defeat. The third set strongly resembled the first with Nadal holding the upper hand from the baseline and Djokovic playing reactive tennis.

But once again Djokovic asserted himself in the fourth set, opening up a 5-2 lead, serving for the set at 5-3. He had two set points in that critical ninth game but atypically sent an angled backhand into the net on the first and then was far too cautious with a backhand approach down the line on the second. Nadal passed Djokovic easily and eventually broke back before closing out a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) triumph over the defending champion.

Would Djokovic have prevailed in five sets had he been able to get there? On that particular night, I have my doubts that he would have succeeded. His coach, Goran Ivanisevic, later lamented that Djokovic’s body language was not up to his usual standard while Nadal carried himself more commandingly. I agree with that. Somehow, although this match had lasting implications for both players, it was Nadal who seemed to want it more. Djokovic wandered in and out of sets unpredictably, with his form fluctuating wildly. Nadal, even when the second set slipped from his grasp, maintained a high level throughout.

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Perhaps Djokovic and Nadal realized that their quarterfinal was essentially a final. No one on the other half was going to beat either one of them, and although Sascha Zverev was a looming semifinal threat, he was unlikely to eclipse Djokovic or Nadal over best of five on that court.

The No. 3 seed Zverev had upended No. 6 Alcaraz in what many regarded as a significant upset. Alcaraz had beaten Zverev soundly in the final of Madrid. The 19-year-old Spaniard was viewed as the tournament favorite in the minds of many experts. He had survived a match point in the second round against his left-handed countryman Albert Ramos-Vinolas as the 34-year-old meekly netted a routine forehand. Alcaraz survived that strenuous test in five sets and then marched past Sebastian Korda (avenging a loss to the American in Monte Carlo), and Karen Khachanov in straight sets.

Zverev, too, had survived a match point against him in a second round, five set escape against Sebastian Baez. In his appointment against Alcaraz, Zverev set the tempo almost entirely in the first two sets, tightened up in the third, but came through 6-4 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7), saving a set point in the tie-break at the end and winning the match with a devastatingly potent backhand down the line return winner.

That was a much needed victory for Zverev, his first ever against a top-ten ranked opponent at a major. It carried him into his meeting against Nadal in the semifinals with a restored belief in his game. They fought through a marathon first set under the roof. Zverev saved three set points at 4-5 on his serve. In the tie-break, the 6’6” German surged to 6-2, with four set points at his disposal. But Nadal aced him before Zverev serve-volleyed but missed the backhand first volley long. Then Nadal made a spectacular forehand passing shot winner on the full stretch before coaxing another backhand volley error from Zverev.

Somehow, Nadal, calling it “a miracle” later, took that tie-break 10-8. In the second set, with Nadal’s perspiration profuse and the humidity severe indoors, there were an astounding eight service breaks in the first nine games. Zverev served for the set at 5-3 but double faulted three times to squander that opportunity. Nadal was serving at 5-6 with a game point when Zverev rolled his ankle, screaming in anguish as he hit the ground. He would return to the court about ten minutes later on crutches to concede the match to Nadal ( 7–6 (8), 6–6, ret.).

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They had played for over three hours without even completing two sets. Nadal would likely have needed to stay on court at least another hour and perhaps much longer if Zverev had won the second set. He was very fortunate to spare himself the extra wear and tear. He was able to save that energy for the final.

He then took advantage of a very good matchup against No. 8 seed Casper Ruud in the final. There was never much doubt about the outcome. Ruud’s forehand is a weapon against most opponents, but the left handed Nadal broke it down with his razor sharp crosscourt backhand, and pummeled away with his whirlwind topspin forehand to exploit Ruud’s weaker backhand wing. It was a nightmare for the Norwegian to face Nadal for the first time in an official match after playing many practice sets with the Spaniard at Rafa’s academy.

Nadal rolled to 2-0 in the first set, played a poor game on his serve in the third game with two double faults and a game closing forehand unforced error, but then broke back for 3-1. He closed out that set 6-3 before falling behind 3-1 in the second. From there he was unstoppable and Ruud looked beleaguered and outclassed. Nadal regally swept eleven games in a row to close out the account. 

The Spaniard has now widened his lead over Djokovic and Roger Federer by virtue of securing his 22nd major. The Serbian and the Swiss both have amassed 20 Grand Slam titles apiece. Although Federer plans a return in the autumn, he is almost surely not going to win another major. Djokovic, of course, is another story altogether. After his somewhat perplexing performance against Nadal in Paris, he will be immensely eager to hold onto his crown at Wimbledon.

Djokovic has been victorious on his last three visits to the All England Club (2018, 2019 and 2021), and has won Wimbledon six times altogether. He will be the favorite this year. With Zverev dealing with torn lateral ligaments in his right foot, he could well miss Wimbledon. Medvedev is barred from competing there as a Russian player, as is Andrey Rublev. But Nadal surprised a lot of people who speculated that he would skip Wimbledon by saying he has a plan that maybe, just maybe, might allow him to pursue a third title on the British lawns and his first since 2010.

He will start a new treatment and do radio frequency ablation to the nerve in his foot. If the treatment works, Nadal will indeed be back at Wimbledon; if not, he would consider having surgery, which might lead him toward retirement.

Never before in his sterling career has Nadal been halfway to a calendar Grand Slam because he had not won the Australian and French Opens in the same year. So his motivation to play Wimbledon has been heightened by his stunning title run in Paris. If he does come to Wimbledon healthy, it would still be a tall order for the Spaniard to win there. No doubt he would be a strong contender, but would he beat Djokovic on the grass?

I doubt it, although to rule it out would be foolish. In their two Wimbledon clashes, Djokovic stopped Nadal in a four set 2011 final and then narrowly ousted his old rival in a five set semifinal four years ago. If they do meet, Nadal would have the opportunity to even his riveting career head to head series with Djokovic at 30-30. But Nadal has not defeated Djokovic on a surface other than clay since the 2013 U.S. Open.

The pursuit of historical supremacy may not be over for these two icons—as long as Nadal can overcome the severity of his foot ailment. But even in the worst case scenario if the Spaniard is forced to retire later this year, he now has put himself in an enviable position. He has won 22 of 30 major finals across his career. Both Djokovic and Federer are 20-11. Critics would point out that Nadal is 14-0 in French Open finals but only 8-8 combined at the three other majors. That is a valid point, but the Spaniard’s clay court genius can’t be held over him either. Meanwhile, Djokovic is 9-0 in Australian Open finals on his favorite hard courts but only 3-6 in U.S. Open finals. Go figure.

To be sure, Nadal has claimed 63 of his 92 overall career titles on the clay, but the fact remains that he has matched Djokovic and surpassed Federer by winning all four majors at least twice. Djokovic has spent much longer as the No. 1 ranked player in the world than either of his chief rivals, finishing seven years at the top and 373 weeks compared to five years for Nadal and 209 weeks.

The debate will linger. But on this point there can be no dispute: Nadal has mastered the clay the way no one else in modern tennis history has ruled on any surface. His career match record on the dirt is an astounding 474-45.

The feeling grows that someday Nadal will reflect on his 2022 Roland Garros win and cherish it more than any of his other Paris victories. This one was about the size of his heart, his incomparable discipline and the depth of his determination rather than forehands and backhands. 

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Australian Open Daily Preview: Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina Play for the Women’s Championship

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Aryna Sabalenka on Thursday in Melbourne (twitter.com/australianopen)

2022 was a trying year for Aryna Sabalenka.  She completely lost her form on her second serve, striking double-digit double faults in many of her matches.  And in her third Major semifinal within a 14-month period, she again lost in heartbreaking fashion, by a score of 6-4 in the third for the third straight time.  Many athletes never recover from such issues and scar tissue.  But in just the first month of 2023, and after working with a biomechanics specialist to fix her serve, a calmer, more confident Sabalenka has achieved her first Major singles final.

 

2022 was a milestone year for Elena Rybakina.  Six months ago, the 23-year-old had only won two WTA titles at smaller events, and reached one Major quarterfinal.  Then she surprised the tennis world by winning Wimbledon this past July.  However, she was granted no ranking points due to the controversial backlash to Wimbledon’s ban of Russian and Belarussian athletes.  And in the ensuing months, Elena was often banished to outer courts at bigger events, including this one, with court assignments unbefitting of a reigning Wimbledon champion.  Rybakina used all of this as motivation, and has achieved her second Major final just six months after her first.

Also on Saturday, the men’s doubles champions will be crowned.  Will an Aussie team triumph for a second year in a row?  Wild cards Rinky Hijikata and Jason Kubler will face Hugo Nys and Jan Zielinski, in a first Major final for both of these partnerships. 


Elena Rybakina (22) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (5) – 7:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Sabalenka is a perfect 10-0 in 2023, and 20-0 in sets.  This is the fourth time out of the last six Majors she has advanced to the semifinals or better, and she already owns two Slam titles in women’s doubles with Elise Mertens.  Regardless of Saturday’s result, Aryna will reach a new career-high of No.2 on Monday.

Rybakina had lost five of her last eight matches heading into this fortnight, but has found her form as the event has progressed.  She has dropped only one set through six matches, to last year’s runner-up Danielle Collins.  Elena will debut inside the top 10 on Monday, as high as No.8 if she wins this final.  And she would be solidly inside the top five with her points from Wimbledon.

Sabalenka leads their head-to-head 3-0, though all three matches have gone three sets.  In fact in all three, Sabalenka won the first and third sets, while Rybakina won the second.  They’ve played four years ago in Wuhan, two years ago in Abu Dhabi, and two years ago at Wimbledon. 

Aryna’s vastly-improved serve and demeanor have been crucial in advancing her to her first Major singles final.  But can she avoid double faulting, and remain calm, in what is the biggest match of her career?

No player’s serve has been more effective during this tournament than Rybakina’s.  As per Tumaini Carayol on Twitter, more than 50% of Elena’s serves have gone unreturned, which results in a lot of easy points.  And no player remains more calm on court than Rybakina, despite the berating comments her coach may share during the match

I expect Elena’s experience winning Wimbledon six months ago to prove extremely valuable on Saturday, and slightly favor Rybakina to win her second Major.


Saturday’s full Order of Play is here.

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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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