Australian Open Daily Preview: Djokovic, Murray, Sabalenka Face Familiar Foes - UBITENNIS
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Australian Open Daily Preview: Djokovic, Murray, Sabalenka Face Familiar Foes

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Andy Murray on Friday morning in Melbourne (twitter.com/australianopen)

On Saturday in Melbourne, third round singles action concludes, with plenty of room for new names to advance after the bottom half of both singles draws saw a plethora of upsets on Thursday.

 

Andy Murray won an epic encounter in the last round, defeating Thanasi Kokkinakis after five hours and forty-five minutes, in a match that ended after 4:00am.  After already spending over 10-and-a-half hours on court this week, what will Murray have left on Saturday against Roberto Bautista Agut, who had seemingly sent Andy into retirement four years ago at this same event?

Meanwhile Nine-Time Champion Novak Djokovic has struggled his way through two rounds with a significant leg injury, as his movement was obviously hampered on Thursday.   In the third round, he faces Grigor Dimitrov for the 11th time.  Dimitrov has advanced comfortably without dropping a set.

And Aryna Sabalenka is playing some of the best tennis of her career.  But on Saturday, she faces her friend and former doubles partner Elise Mertens, who partnered with Sabalenka to win this tournament in 2021.

Each day this preview will highlight the four most intriguing matchups, while outlining the other notable matches on the schedule.  Saturday’s play will begin at 11:00am local time. 


Aryna Sabalenka (5) vs. Elise Mertens (26) – Third on Margaret Court Arena

Sabalenka has cruised to this stage, losing only nine games across four sets.  And she’s now taken all 12 sets she’s contested in 2023, coming off a title run last week in Adelaide.  Aryna has reached the fourth round in each of the last two years in Melbourne.

Mertens has achieved that same feat in each of the last three years, and was a semifinalist here in 2018.  She was a modest 29-23 last season in singles, but won a hard court title in October.

Sabalenka leads their head-to-head 6-2, and has won their last five meetings.  Most recently, she defeated Mertens in the fourth round of the 2021 US Open 6-4, 6-1.  On Saturday, based on her recent strong form, Aryna is the favorite to defeat Elise for the sixth straight time.


Linda Fruhvirtova vs. Marketa Vondrousova – Third on 1573 Arena

Vondrousova upset Ons Jabeur in the last round, who was the runner-up at the last two Majors.  Marketa was a Major runner-up herself four years ago in Paris, but injuries have hampered her career ever since.  Still just 23-years-old, there’s seemingly plenty of time for the Czech to become a contender again.

Fruhvirtova is also a Czech player, though she’s six years younger than Vondrousova.  The 17-year-old is into the third round of a Slam for the first time, and her younger sister Brenda was also in this main draw, as a qualifier.  Linda first made waves on tour last March in Miami, where she upset Mertens and Azarenka on her way to the fourth round.  She won her first WTA title this past September in Chennai. 

Both players possess plenty of variety in their games, so this should be a fun contest.  But based on Vondrousova’s experience edge, especially at this level, I like her chances to advance.  Plus, since November, Marketa is now 12-2 at all levels on a hard court. 


Grigor Dimitrov (27) vs. Novak Djokovic (4) – 7:00pm on Rod Laver Arena

Djokovic looked seriously hobbled at times during his second round match against Enzo Couacaud.  He suffered a hamstring injury two weeks ago in Adelaide, and admitted after his second round victory that his injury “is not ideal.”  Dimitrov is a considerable step up in competition for Novak, as his first two opponents were ranked 75th and 191st in the world.

The Australian Open is easily the best Major in Grigor’s career.  The Bulgarian has advanced to the quarterfinals or better four times since 2014.  But he was only 26-22 last season, and only 4-4 at Slams.

Djokovic has dominated their head-to-head 9-1, and 6-0 on hard courts.  Dimitrov’s only victory came 10 years ago on clay in Madrid.  While not knowing the full extent of his hamstring inury, after watching Djokovic fight his way through an abdominal injury to win this event two years ago, it’s hard not to pick Novak to fight his way to another victory over Grigor on Saturday.


Andy Murray vs. Roberto Bautista Agut (24) – 7:00pm on Margaret Court Arena

Murray can’t possibly recover enough to contend in this matchup, right?  Coming back from back-to-back five-setters, the second of which lasted nearly six hours and ended close to breakfast time, seems impossible for almost any athlete, much less a 35-year-old with a metal hip.

While Bautista Agut is also coming off a five-setter, against American qualifier Brandon Holt, his lasted nearly three hours less, and ended even more hours earlier.  Roberto is off to a strong start in 2023, as he was a runner-up just last week in Adelaide, where he lost the final in a third-set tiebreak to Soon-woo Kwon.

Four years ago in the first round of this tournament, Bautista Agut defeated Murray in a four-hour five-setter, with an on-court ceremony held thereafter for a thought-to-be retiring Andy.  But here Murray is, still gritting his way through five-setters and defeating players nearly 10 years his junior.  Roberto also beat Andy twice last year on hard courts, winning those four sets by score lines of 6-0, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2.  Murray claimed their first three meetings, which occurred between 2014 and 2016.

But on this day, a drained Andy has to be considered a huge underdog, as he tries to reach the fourth round at a Major for the first time in six years.


Other Notable Matches on Saturday:

Anna Karolina Schmiedlova (Q) vs. Belinda Bencic (12) – Bencic is now 6-0 to start the year, coming off a title run in Adelaide.  She’s split two previous meetings against Schmiedlova on hard courts.

Andrey Rublev (5) vs. Dan Evans (25) – Rublev is vying to reach the second week for the ninth time out of his last 12 Majors.  Evans has only twice accomplished that.  These players are 4-4 against each other at all levels.

Tommy Paul vs. Jenson Brooksby – Brooksby took out second-seeded Casper Ruud in four sets on Thursday, while Paul outlasted Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in five.  This past summer in Cincinnati, Tommy defeated Jenson 6-3, 6-2.

Laura Siegemund vs. Caroline Garcia (4) – Garcia managed to defeat Leylah Fernandez in straight sets in the last round despite a stern test from the Canadian.  Two years ago at Roland Garros, Caroline easily prevailed over Laura, dropping just four games.


Saturday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Dominic Thiem Rules Federer Out Of GOAT Debate

The Austrian puts forward his theory on who should be regarded as the best player in history.

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Dominic Thiem; e-motion/Bildagentur Zolles KG/Martin Steiger, 27.10.2022

The honour of which player deserves to be regarded as the greatest of all time (GOAT) should be decided based on one factor, according to Dominic Thiem. 

 

The former world No.3 has weighed in on the debate by suggesting that the argument should be settled by the number of Grand Slam titles a player has won as they are the most prestigious tournaments in the sport. In tennis, the four major tournaments are the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. 

Thiem’s GOAT criteria have therefore ruled Roger Federer out of contention. The Swiss maestro was at one stage the frontrunner due to the numerous records he has broken throughout his career. However, he retired from the sport last year with 20 Grand Slam trophies under his belt which is less than both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic who are currently on 22 each. 

“In my opinion, the Grand Slam titles should be the defining criteria when determining the best of all time, they are the four most important tournaments in tennis,” Eurosport quotes Thiem as saying. 
“Everything else is fine, but it’s not the same. The Slams are what counts, so the GOAT will probably be the one with the most Grand Slams.”

Others will argue that more factors should be taken into account in the subjective debate. For example, Federer has won 103 ATP titles which are more than his two rivals, Djokovic holds the record for most weeks as world No.1 and Nadal has won more tournaments on clay than any other player in history. Furthermore, there is the players’ win-loss rate on the Tour and their records against the top 10 players. 

Recently at the Australian Open Djokovic won the men’s title for a historic 10th time in his career. An achievement that has been hailed by Thiem who was runner-up to the Serbian at Melbourne Park in 2021. 

“I am not very surprised, Djokovic still looks young,” he said. “Physically and mentally, because of the way he moves on the court. It’s like he was 25 years old.
“We have to be honest, he is the best, so his victory was not very surprising.”

Thiem has won one Grand Slam title which was at the 2020 US Open when he became the first man in the Open Era to come back from two sets down to win in the final. He has also been runner-up at the French Open twice, as well as the Australian Open once. 

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Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open Injury ‘Hard To Believe’ In The Eyes Of His Opponent

Some details surrounding Djokovic’s battle with a hamstring issue ‘doesn’t make sense,’ according to Enzo Couacaud.

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Image via Adelaide International Twitter

The only man to take a set off Novak Djokovic during the Serbian’s run to a historic 10th Australian Open title believes there are unanswered questions over his injury. 

 

France’s Enzo Couacaud took a set off the world No.1 before losing their encounter in the second round at Melbourne Park. At the tournament Djokovic was dealing with a hamstring problem which he picked up at the Adelaide International earlier this year. Throughout the tournament, he was wearing strapping on his leg and there was uncertainty about if he would be able to continue playing in the Grand Slam event. 

Despite the issue, Djokovic claimed a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam title by disposing of Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets in the final. Afterwards his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, claimed that 97% of players would not have played if they were in a similar situation. The exact diagnosis of Djokovic’s injury hasn’t been addressed by his team but Australian Open director Craig Tiley said he suffered a 3mm tear. 

However, Couacaud has questioned the significance of the injury to begin with. During an interview with Tennis Actu, the world No.172 believes that some of the details appear to be ‘far-fetched’ as he draws parallels with Rafael Nadal, as well as footballer Kylian Mbappe.  

“Novak claimed he was playing with an injury, a big injury,” said Couacaud. “When athletes are injured in combat sports, they often can’t continue. When Rafael Nadal is injured, he can’t run. Kylian Mbappe, for example, is out for two weeks.
“And those are the greatest athletes, not those who don’t have access to top-notch care. It is therefore difficult to believe that only one man in the world can continue with an injury.
“When you take the examples of Nadal or Mbappe, but especially Rafa, with an injury to Wimbledon, he couldn’t even serve. When you see the greatest who can’t set foot on the pitch and another who wins a Grand Slam by playing every day for 15 days. It still seems a bit far-fetched.
“There are little things that don’t make sense to me. I was always told not to stretch with an injury. You saw Novak stretching all the time. You say to yourself, either they have a new method in Serbia, or it’s weird. Little things like that, he has his staff, but I’m too far to judge the authenticity of anything. It is true that it seems hard to believe.”

It is not the first time Djokovic has faced accusations that he has in some way exaggerated the significance of an injury. He encountered a similar situation during the 2021 Australian Open where he suffered an abdominal injury. After winning the tournament, he confirmed that he sustained a tear in the region. 

Speaking to journalists at Melbourne Park last month, the tennis star once again hit back at his critics and claimed that he was being singled out. 

“I leave the doubting to those people – let them doubt,” Tennis Majors quoted Djokovic as saying in Serbian following his fourth round win over Alex de Minaur. “Only my injuries are questioned. When some other players are injured, then they are the victims, but when it is me, I am faking it. It is very interesting… I don’t feel that I need to prove anything to anyone.
“I am not really interested at this point what people are thinking and saying. It is fun, it is interesting to see how the narrative surrounding me continues, narrative that is different compared to other players that have been going through similar situation. But I am used to it, and it just gives me extra strength and motivation. So I thank them for that.”

Djokovic has won 93 ATP titles during his career which is the fourth-highest tally in history. Only Ivan Lendl (94), Roger Federer (102) and Jimmy Connors (109) have won more. 

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Novak Djokovic ‘Hurt’ By Father’s Absence From Australian Open Final

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Novak Djokovic - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto dell'Olivo)

Novak Djokovic said he mutually agreed with his father that he did not attend his latest Australian Open match but admits it was a bitter pill to swallow. 

 

Srdjan Djokovic had attended his son’s matches throughout the majority of the tournament but has recently been caught up in controversy. On Wednesday a video surfaced on social media of the 62-year-old posing for a photo with pro-Russian supporters with one of the fans waving a flag with the face of Vladimir Putin on it. Another fan was also wearing a t-shirt with the ‘Z’ symbol on it which is used to support the Russian army. 

The Russian and Belarussian flags were banned from the tournament this year following an incident in the first round. A Russian flag was shown during a match between Ukraine’s Kateryna Baindl and Russia’s Kamilla Rakhimova. Prompting anger from Ukraine with its ambassador to Australia calling for a ‘neutral flag’ policy to be implemented. 

Srdjan has since issued a statement saying the incident was ‘unintentional’ and said his family ‘only wish for peace in the world.’ He subsequently also missed Djokovic’s semi-final match to avoid any possible ‘disruption’ before doing the same for Sunday’s final.

“I thought things would calm down in terms of media and everything, but it didn’t. We both agreed it would probably be better that he is not there,” Djokovic said after beating Stefanos Tsitsipas to win a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam title
“That hurts me and him (Srdjan) a lot because these are very special, unique moments. Who knows if they repeat again? So it was not easy for him.”

Whilst he was not in the stands, Djokovic was reunited with his father shortly afterwards. Although the tennis star said Srdjan ‘was not feeling his best’ due to the situation. 

“It is what it is. I think in the end also what he told me is that it’s important that I feel good on the court, I win the match, and he’s here for me,” Djokovic continued. 
“If it’s going to be better for me as the outcome of the match so that he’s not in the box, then so be it. That was the whole conversation.’
“In a way, I’m also sad that he was not there, present, in the stands. But he was throughout the entire tournament, so it’s fine. In the end, we have a happy ending.”

Djokovic has now won five out of the past seven Grand Slam tournaments he has played in. At the Australian Open alone he has won 28 matches in a row.

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