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Djokovic: ‘Things Are Going In The Right Direction'

  • Posted: Feb 16, 2021

After reaching his ninth Australian Open semi-final with a four-set win over Alexander Zverev on Tuesday, Novak Djokovic shared an optimistic update on the abdominal injury he suffered in his third-round clash with Taylor Fritz.

Last Friday, the 33-year-old’s bid to join Rafael Nadal as only the second man to win nine or more titles at a single Grand Slam event was almost ended in the first week of the tournament. Djokovic sustained an abdominal injury during the third set of his third ATP Head2Head encounter against Fritz, but he took risks on his serve and claimed two late breaks in a deciding set to advance to the Round of 16.

Since then, Djokovic has skipped practice sessions and defeated Milos Raonic and Zverev in four-set battles to move two wins away from a record-extending ninth title in Melbourne. Four days on from his five-set win against Fritz, Djokovic told reporters that his abdomen issue appears to be improving.

“The positive thing is that I actually felt the best today — from the beginning of the second set until the end of the match — that I have since the third round against Fritz when the injury happened,” said Djokoic. “It means that this is going in the right direction, and fingers crossed that in two days it will stay the same.”

Novak Djokovic is aiming to capture a record-extending ninth Australian Open title.

Djokovic’s reward for his win against Zverev is a place in the Australian Open semi-finals. The World No. 1 is no stranger to competing in the latter stages of the tournament at Melbourne Park, but he will face a new challenge when he steps onto Rod Laver Arena for his next match.

Djokovic will be facing Grand Slam debutant Aslan Karatsev for a place in the championship match in Melbourne. Like many tennis fans, Djokovic watched the Russian qualifier for the first time at this tournament.

“I had not seen him play, honestly, before [the] Australian Open,” said Djokovic. “I have seen him play during the tournament here, and he impressed me, [he] impressed a lot of people. His movement, his firepower from baseline. [He has a] flat backhand, [he is straight from the] Russian school [with a] great backhand. [He] also hits some good forehands [and] dictates the play. He is impressive. [He was] two sets down against Felix [and] came back. He was just very solid against Grigor… He’s there for a reason, and I congratulate him for [his] great success.”

While Djokovic chases 20-time Grand Slam titlists Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the history books, Karatsev has already made history in Melbourne. The Russian is the first player from his country to reach the semi-finals at the Australian Open since 2005 champion Marat Safin.

Karatsev will enter his first match against Djokovic as the underdog, but that has been the case throughout this event. In his last three matches, the 27-year-old has beaten eighth seed Diego Schwartzman, No. 20 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime and No. 18 seed Grigor Dimitrov.

“It’s his first semi-final [at a] Grand Slam, so obviously for him it’s [the] biggest success he has had so far,” said Djokovic. “He doesn’t have anything to lose, really. He’s motivated. I expect him to come out and really go for his shots and try his best and try to take that win.”

Karatsev will not be the only player trying to achieve something for the first time. Djokovic is attempting to win a Grand Slam without practising on his days off, a tactic which has aided his abdominal recovery in recent days.

“I have had a roller coaster of a tournament, to be honest… [I have] not trained on [my] days off already two times,” said Djokovic. “I’m not going to [train] tomorrow as well… I have not ever experienced that, to be honest, and I have never experienced this kind of injury during a Grand Slam and kept going.”

Djokovic has had to compromise at this year’s tournament. By not practising, he is missing out on the opportunity to sharpen his skills for his next match. But, in his current condition, recovery is taking priority over practice.

“I don’t feel like I need to practise in terms of getting half an hour or an hour on the court because I need to work on something,” said Djokovic. “I have had enough tennis… Right now, the priority is recovery. The more time I have to recover and not exert too much energy and not make any quick moves, the better it is for me.”

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Djokovic Repeats Zverev Win, Reaches Ninth Australian Open Semi-final

  • Posted: Feb 16, 2021

Novak Djokovic survived another major test at the Australian Open on Tuesday, as he overcame Alexander Zverev 6-7(6), 6-2, 6-4, 7-6(8) in three hours and 30 minutes to reach his ninth semi-final at Melbourne Park.

Djokovic saved nine of 12 break points, including a set point at 5-6 in the fourth set with an ace, to earn his sixth ATP Head2Head victory in eight matches against Zverev. The 33-year-old has now won 11 straight matches against Top 10 players at Melbourne Park, dating back to his quarter-final loss to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka in 2014.

“Down to the very last shot, it was anybody’s game, anybody’s match,” said Djokovic, in an on-court interview. “[There were] a lot of nerves out there, a lot of pressure. Emotionally, [I] feel a little drained, honestly. It was a great battle. Congratulations to Sascha for a great tournament and a great battle today. Tough luck today, but we pushed each other to the limit.”

This is Djokovic’s second comeback win against Zverev on Rod Laver Arena this year. Just 11 days ago, Djokovic outlasted the 2018 Nitto ATP Finals champion 6-7(3), 6-2, 7-5 in Serbia’s 2-1 loss to Germany at the ATP Cup.

Djokovic has survived back-to-back four-set encounters since suffering an abdominal injury in his five-set victory against Taylor Fritz last Friday. The 17-time major champion is now two wins away from joining 13-time Roland Garros titlist Rafael Nadal as only the second man to claim nine or more titles at the same Grand Slam event. Djokovic is also aiming to narrow the gap on 20-time Grand Slam winners Nadal and Roger Federer.

Djokovic made a slow start to his 48th Grand Slam quarter-final (39-9), as he committed multiple double faults and forehand errors to drop serve in the opening game of the match. Zverev overpowered the eight-time champion from the baseline to earn a set point at 3-5, but Djokovic stepped inside the court and ripped a backhand winner down the line to stay in contention.

Despite failing to serve out the set at 5-4, Zverev continued to play with an aggressive mindset in the tie-break. The German capitalised on poor shot selection from Djokovic at 6/6, as he chased down a drop shot to earn his third set point with a powerful overhead. Zverev fired a strong body serve to force Djokovic into a forehand return error and clinch the opener.

Djokovic responded immediately in the second set, as he forced Zverev behind the baseline with deep returns and significantly reduced his unforced error count. The top seed dropped three points in the opening four games and soon levelled the match with an ace down the T. Djokovic struck 23 unforced errors in the opening two sets. Only two of those were committed in the second set.

“After [the first set], I just felt I started moving better, playing better,” said Djokovic. “I served extremely well. I had slightly more aces than him (23 to 21) which, for me, is a miracle [when] playing against a big server like Sascha.”

There was a sense of first-set déjà vu at the start of the third set, as Djokovic lost his opening service game with a forehand error and a double fault. Unlike the first set, Djokovic was able to recover. From 2-4, 0/30 down on Zverev’s serve, Djokovic won 16 of the next 18 points to take the third set. The 33-year-old capitalised on Zverev’s first two double faults of the match to recover the break and he showed greater consistency in extended baseline rallies turn the set in his favour.

Zverev continued his trend of early breaks in the fourth set. The German found his targets as Djokovic rushed the net and he fired a strong forehand up the line to break serve. But Djokovic showed his fighting spirit once more to book his place in the final four. Djokovic escaped from a combined five break points at 0-3 and 3-4 with all-out aggression and saved a set point at 5-6 with an ace to reach a tie-break. The six-time year-end World No. 1 forced Zverev into an error at the net to claim the only mini-break of the fourth-set tie-break at 6/6 and he converted his second match point with an ace down the T.

Zverev, who had been bidding to reach the Australian Open semi-finals for the second consecutive year, was disappointed that he couldn’t capitalise on his chances.

“[There were] maybe too many mistakes, easy mistakes,” said Zverev. “But it’s one of the most difficult things, holding your serve against Novak in our sport. [I’m] very upset with the result.

“For me, the most upsetting parts in the third and fourth sets were actually not losing my serve, but not getting the second breaks. Because I had chances in both those sets [and] that would have changed things a lot. It was a great match. I think we both played well [and] I think we played an extremely physical match.”

Alexander Zverev is aiming to capture his maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.

“Other than the second set, I started pretty poorly [in] all the other three sets,” said Djokovic. “I lost my service very early in the first, third and fourth [sets] and just allowed him to swing through the ball a bit more. I regained my focus after I broke my racquet [in the third set] and things started to shift a little bit for me in a positive direction. If he won this match, it definitely wouldn’t be undeserved. He was playing really well. It was anybody’s game and I am just really glad to overcome such a challenge.”

Djokovic will meet Grand Slam debutant Aslan Karatsev for a place in the championship match. The 27-year-old defeated Grigor Dimitrov 2-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 to become the first player in the Open Era (since 1968) to reach the semi-finals in his maiden major championship appearance. Djokovic will aim to extend his unbeaten 16-0 record in semi-final and final matches when he meets Karatsev for the first time at Melbourne Park.

“To be honest, I hadn’t seen [Karatsev] play at all before the Australian Open,” said Djokovic. “Of course, I have seen him play during the Australian Open… He is a very strong guy. Physically, he is just very strong. He moves well [and] just has a lot of firepower from the back of the court. [He has a] great backhand. [He is straight] from the Russian school of tennis, [they] always have great backhands. He serves well and he is motivated. He has nothing to lose.”

Did You Know?
This is the ninth time Djokovic has reached the Australian Open semi-finals. On the eight previous occasions the Serbian has advanced to the final four at Melbourne Park, he has lifted the title.

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Preview: Rafa Back In Business, Battles Tsitsipas For SF Berth

  • Posted: Feb 16, 2021

When will we learn? Every time we think Rafael Nadal’s body is about to give out, that the decades of bruising, dictate-or-disappear tennis are finally catching up with him, the Mallorcan comes through once again, encircled by photographers at some trophy-biting presentation in Barcelona or the Bois de Boulogne.

“Everybody said that because of my style, I would have a short career,” he scolded back in the summer of 2018. “I’m still here.”

When Nadal pulled out of the ATP Cup earlier this month complaining of tightness in his lower back, all we could talk/text/tweet about was how this latest setback would stymie his chances at the Australian Open, where the 34-year-old was seeking to snap a stalemate with Roger Federer with a record 21st major singles title.

“NADAL’S AUSSIE OPEN IN DOUBT,” blared one headline. But while the rumours churned, Nadal, who said he wasn’t “a big fan of finding excuses,” was quietly knifing his way through his quarter of the draw. Even with an altered service motion, the 2009 champion hasn’t dropped a set through four rounds and is now into the quarter-finals for the 13th time in 16 appearances at Melbourne Park.

In his much-hyped Round of 16 match with longtime nemesis Fabio Fognini of Italy, Rafa rolled, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, in just two hours and 16-minutes, the outcome never really in doubt.

“Things in sports change quick,” observed Nadal. “Sometimes you feel that you are so-so; then you win a couple of matches and you feel the best possible.” 

Bidding to become the first man in the Open Era to win all four major championships at least twice, Nadal will next face a well-rested Stefanos Tsitsipas. The fifth-seeded Greek benefitted from a fourth-round walkover when ninth seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy withdrew due to an abdominal strain. The 22-year-old’s only real test came courtesy of home favourite Thanasi Kokkinakis who, in front of the Aussie fans, pushed Tsitsipas to five sets in the second round.

Nadal will come in as the go-to pick, having claimed six of their seven ATP Head2Head meetings, including a straight-sets, 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 victory in the 2019 Australian Open semi-finals. Tsitsipas’ lone win came that same year on his opponent’s favourite surface, clay, in the Mutua Madrid Open semi-finals, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3.

Tsitsipas is bidding to become youngest Australian Open men’s singles champion since Novak Djokovic in 2008. Last year, he reached the third round (l. to Raonic).

Daniil Medvedev is yet to drop a set against Andrey Rublev in three ATP Head2Head meetings. 

Elsewhere in quarter-final play on Day 10 in Melbourne, fourth seed Daniil Medvedev and seventh seed Andrey Rublev, who less than 10 days ago combined efforts to lead Russia to the ATP Cup title, will tussle in a matchup some penciled in the moment the 2021 draw was released. Both players remain an unbeaten 8-0 in 2021.

“If the level is going to be the same, these guys [are] going to see each other in the quarter-finals,” foreshadowed Russia’s ATP Cup player/captain Evgeny Donskoy on 7 February. 

Into the quarter-finals here for the first time, Medvedev owns a 3-0 advantage in ATP Head2Head matches against his former junior foe. They last met in the US Open quarter-finals in 2020, with Medvedev earning a 7-6(6), 6-3, 7-6(5) victory. But former No. 1 and 1999 Australian Open champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov says you can toss those results out the window on Wednesday. According to the Russian, it’s all about who gets out of the blocks first.

“I stick to my view that whoever wins the first set is going to take the match,” said Kafelnikov, 46. “Andrey is a great frontrunner. That concerns me a lot when he plays top-level players. He’s going to struggle to come back into the match if he loses the first set. In that sense, it’s a must for him to win the first set if he wants to get through that quarter-final.”

Team Russia

The fact that Rublev has spent so much time around his countryman over the years should only serve him well going forward. Medvedev, two years his senior at 25, has been a trailblazer of sorts; breaking through to his first major final at the 2019 US Open and winning the year-end Nitto ATP Finals in 2020. His fellow Muscovite is a real-time example of all that is possible in this sport.

“He reads the game really well and it’s amazing the patience he has to stay so long in the rallies, to not rush, to take his time,” said Rublev. “These things are amazing because, in the end, these little details, they make him who he is.”

“After the match, we are great friends. There is no rivalry,” said Medvedev, who’s riding an 18-match winning streak that dates back to October 2020. “Unless there’s a huge fight during the match, which I doubt, one of us is going to say congrats to the other. We’ll be disappointed with the result, but we’ll move on and have many more matches to come.”

Regardless of the outcome, these victorious ATP Cup champions have made history in Melbourne. With the troika of Medvedev, Rublev and qualifier Aslan Karatsev all landing in the elite eight, it marks the first time in the Open Era that three Russian men have reached the quarter-finals at a Grand Slam. The question is, which man will join Karatsev in the semi-finals?

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Murray Takes Montpellier Wild Card, Joins Goffin & Sinner

  • Posted: Feb 16, 2021

Former World No. 1 Andy Murray has taken a wild card into next week’s Open Sud de France in Montpellier, the ATP 250 event announced on social media Monday. 

Murray will make his tournament debut in Montpellier looking to build on a strong start to the 2021 season at the Biella Challenger Indoor 1. He won four matches, including eight sets in  a row, to reach his first final at any level since 2019. 

Murray, currently No. 125 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, will head to Montpellier in search of his third ATP Tour title in France after lifting trophies at Open 13 Provence (Marseille) in 2008 and the Rolex Paris Masters in 2016.  

Murray will join a host of Top 100 players in his first ATP Tour tournament of the year. Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut leads the field as the top seed, alongside fellow Top 20 player David Goffin.

France’s Richard Gasquet is also scheduled to hit the court in Montpellier, which begins 22 February. He’ll be joined by fan favourites Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Feliciano Lopez, as well as #NextGenATP Italian Jannik Sinner.

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Dodig/Polasek Return To Australian Open Semi-finals

  • Posted: Feb 16, 2021

Ivan Dodig and Filip Polasek ended the run of Aussie wild cards Matthew Ebden and John-Patrick Smith 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 on Tuesday to reach their second straight Australian Open semi-final.

Dodig and Polasek landed 26 winners and won 78 per cent of their first-serve points (40/51) en route to victory. The ninth seeds entered the quarter-finals without dropping a set, but they needed one hour and 50 minutes to overcome Ebden and Smith on Court 3.

Dodig and Polasek, who are through to their third Grand Slam semi-final as a team (0-2), own a 9-2 record this year. The Croatian-Slovakian duo is aiming to reach its second final of 2021, following its runner-up finish at the Antalya Open in January (l. to Mektic/Pavic).

The Antalya finalists will have a chance to gain revenge for their championship match loss on the Turkish south coast. They will face Antalya champions Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic in the semi-finals. Mektic and Pavic survived a final-set Match Tie-break to defeat 2019 champions Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(3).

Mektic and Pavic struck 43 winners, including 10 aces, to extend their unbeaten record as a team to 12-0 after two hours and 24 minutes. The second seeds, who began their partnership in Antalya last month, are chasing their third title of the year. Mektic and Pavic picked up their second trophy of the season at the Murray River Open.

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