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Goffin Leads Belgium’s Star-Studded Challenger

  • Posted: Jan 27, 2023

Goffin Leads Belgium’s Star-Studded Challenger speaks with tournament director Stavaux about the event’s first edition

After a six-year absence from Belgium, the ATP Challenger Tour shifts its attention this week to the indoor hard court event, the BW Open. David Goffin’s misfortune at the Australian Open that led to his participation has been a massive boon to the tournament, which has been close to a sell-out in its debut year.

Tournament director Vincent Stavaux, who has worked as an agent for players such as Justine Henin, Marin Cilic, Pablo Andujar, and Kristof Vliegen, is at the forefront of Belgium’s return to the Challenger calendar. Stavaux explained that his aim is to provide a warm experience for players and fans. And the Challenger 125 event is making a strong impression.

“For me the most important thing is that we have a good hotel, good food, and a nice facility,” Stavaux said. “We try to welcome players in the best conditions. For the first edition, we have players that are saying that they’ve never seen so many people attending the first-round matches at a Challenger. We have just a few tickets left for Saturday, the rest of the days are sold out. Fans are close to the court, even in the highest places you are still very close, it makes it a really special atmosphere.”

ATP Challenger Tour 

The Mons, Belgium Challenger, which ended in 2016, earned back-to-back selections as one of the ATP Challengers of the Year (2015, 2016), a player-voted system that recognises the season’s top events. Now the only Belgian Challenger event lies some 60 kilometers from Mons, in Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve (population 31,000), where fans have flocked to the Centre Sportif de Blocry to watch world-class tennis.

Locals already holding red-hot tickets received a last-minute surprise just one week before the tournament: Home favourite Goffin suffered an illness in Melbourne which forced him to miss the season’s first Slam. The World No. 50 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings was given a wild card to come home and play the Belgian Challenger.

“Unfortunately, David got food poisoning in Australia. For us, it has been an incredible use to have him here,” Stavaux said. “That’s what we say in life, ‘The bad news for some is good news for others.’ We were really sorry for David, but for us, ever since he said, ‘I’m coming!’ the website and tickets exploded.”

Practice sessions ahead of the 2023 BW Open.
The calm before the storm: practice session ahead of the 2023 BW Open. Credit: Wild Shot Production

Saturday’s semi-final tickets may not be available much longer. Goffin, seeded first, is set to compete in the final four against countryman Gauthier Onclin. Goffin’s last Challenger title before rising to a career-high No. 7 in 2017 came three years prior on home soil (Mons 2014). The seven-time Challenger champion hopes to repeat the same result this weekend.

The star-studded field didn’t end at Goffin’s presence. Fresh off a third round appearance at the Australian Open, Frenchman Ugo Humbert flew directly to Belgium and kept his commitment to play the BW Open. World No. 69 Mikael Ymer advanced through qualifying and is set to play in Saturday’s semi-final against Turkey’s Altug Celikbilek.

Belgian fans can also get a glimpse of the sport’s brightest future stars who are using the Challenger Tour as a springboard before competing for the most prestigious titles in tennis. Perhaps no example is better than the previous time Belgium held a Challenger.

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“Someone who doesn’t know the Tour well doesn’t know that the Challengers have a nice combination and balance of Next Gen players and guys with a lot of experience who have been in the Top 100,” Stavaux said. “In 2016, Andrey Rublev made the quarter-finals in Mons and Daniil Medvedev was a semi-finalist. That’s the proof that at Challengers you can see the next generation of the top ATP players.”

So which Challenger Tour youngster will next rise to a standout professional career? Only time will tell.

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From 'Crisis' To 'Smooth Sailing', Novak Charts Winning Course At AO

  • Posted: Jan 27, 2023

From ‘Crisis’ To ‘Smooth Sailing’, Novak Charts Winning Course At AO

Serbian chasing record-extending 10th Australian Open title on Sunday

As Novak Djokovic steps on court to face Stefanos Tsitsipas in Sunday’s championship match in Melbourne, one specific statistic from his career may well put him at ease — Nine Australian Open finals played, nine Australian Open finals won.

To increase that record to 10 from 10, Djokovic will look to pull through any difficult moments as calmly as he did against Tommy Paul in Friday’s semi-finals, where he recovered from losing four games in a row in the opening set to seal a 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 victory.

“I’m of course very satisfied and pleased to be in another Grand Slam final,” said Djokovic after riding out his rough patch to reach his 10th championship match at the hard-court major. “I mean, this is exactly what I’ve imagined and hoped that will happen when I came to Australia, with the intention to be in a position to fight for another Australian Open trophy.

“I think that the experience of being in this particular situation and circumstances before helps. I think also the fact that I never lost the Australian Open finals definitely serves as a great confidence booster prior to Sunday.”

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Unlike in many of his past Australian Open final appearances, however, It is not just the Norman Brookes Trophy on the line for Djokovic this year in Melbourne. He could equal Rafael Nadal’s record of 22 Grand Slam crowns with victory over Tsitsipas, while whichever player wins is also set to claim the No. 1 spot in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings from Carlos Alcaraz.

Djokovic leads the Greek 10-2 in the pair’s ATP Head2Head series, including a five-set championship match comeback victory at Roland Garros in 2021. Yet he will take nothing for granted in the knowledge that the 24-year-old third seed has more than enough incentive to bring his best to Rod Laver Arena.

“Of course, still the job needs to be done on the court,” said Djokovic, who has won his past nine tour-level meetings against the Greek. “I’m going to play against Tsitsipas, who is in a great shape, great form, has been playing some of his best tennis. I’m sure that he’s going to be very motivated to win his first Grand Slam title.

“I know his game pretty well. He knows my game well. We played several times in different surfaces… I know what’s ahead of me, and I’m excited. Fortunately for me at this stage of my career, because of all the achievements, it is always basically every match or every tournament there is always something on the line, particularly when the Grand Slams are played.

“Of course, I’m privileged to be in this position, and I’m hoping for the best.”

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In order to defeat the high-flying Tsitsipas, Djokovic will likely have to avoid any lapses in his level like the one he suffered in the opening set against Paul on Friday. The Serbian led 5-1, 40/30 but allowed the American back into the set at 5-5, before Djokovic regained his composure just in time to clinch a set in which he hit 24 unforced errors.

“Today in the first set, obviously [I was] 5-1 up, serving for the set [with] a set point, then things quickly changed, and I was really tight on the court,” said Djokovic. “He came back to five-all. I was struggling also physically and emotionally.

“I guess in these kinds of particular matches, [in the] final stages of a slam, you can expect to have a crisis, one or two or three crises. The less the better, but I [had one today]. I’m really glad to overcome that crisis towards the end of the first set. Then [it] was quite smooth sailing, I would say, from the beginning of the second towards the end of the match.

“Early in the second, early in the third I managed to make an early break, distance myself results-wise, and finish out the match in good style.”

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Tying Nadal in the Grand Slam titles race with victory in Melbourne would set Djokovic up to push for more historic achievements in 2023. When asked about his longer-term plans for his playing career, however, the 35-year-old acknowledged it was not just the prospect of setting more records that is driving his continued commitment to the sport.

“[A] personal reason is that I feel on the tennis court I always have an opportunity to learn something new about myself [and] fight with my own demons, that I guess we all have,” said Djokovic. “When we’re on the tennis court in the midst of a battle, some of the things surface, and I have to deal with it. So, it’s a great school of life for me.

“Then at the same time, of course, I have professional goals and ambitions. Those are Grand Slams and being No. 1 in the world. Those two [are] probably pinnacles of the professional tennis world [and they] have always been there as goals for me. So, I do want to make more history of this sport, no doubt.”

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Djokovic Passes Paul, Sets No.1 Showdown With Tsitsipas In Australian Open Final

  • Posted: Jan 27, 2023

Djokovic Passes Paul, Sets No.1 Showdown With Tsitsipas In Australian Open Final

Title match to determine new No. 1 in Pepperstone ATP Rankings

Novak Djokovic stands on the brink of a record-extending 10th Australian Open title after he overcame a sluggish start to defeat Tommy Paul 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 on Friday in the semi-finals at Melbourne Park.

The Serbian struggled to find his best level at times during his maiden tour-level meeting with the American, but that did not apply to his trademark razor-sharp returning. Despite dropping four straight games from 5-1 to let Paul back into the opening set on Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic ultimately converted seven of 11 break points to move within one win of equalling Rafael Nadal’s tally of 22 major crowns.

Djokovic’s two-hour, 20-minute win set a championship match clash against Stefanos Tsitsipas, who earlier defeated Karen Khachanov 7-6(2), 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3. Sunday’s final will also be a straight shootout for No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, with the winner set to leapfrog Carlos Alcaraz into top spot on Monday.

“Of course it [adds extra significance],” said Djokovic, when asked about the World No. 1 scenario. “Winning Grand Slams and being the No. 1 in the world are probably the two biggest peaks that you can climb as a professional tennis player. Let’s see what happens.”

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Although he did not hit the lights-out levels of his past two matches against Alex de Minaur and Andrey Rublev, Djokovic was comfortable throughout the majority of his clash with Paul. The only exception was an uncharacteristic lapse in the first set, when Paul took advantage of a flurry of uncharacteristically wayward groundstrokes from the Serbian to recover a double-break deficit and level at 5-5.

Despite hitting 24 unforced errors in the opening set, Djokovic regained his composure to claim it, with some clinical groundstrokes earning him a decisive break in the 12th game. He carried that momentum through to dominate the second and third sets, winning the first four games of both to deny his less-experienced opponent any opportunity to settle.

“I was really fortunate to hold my nerve toward the end of the first set,” said Djokovic. “It was a key. After that I started swinging through the ball more, so I’m just really pleased to get through to another final.”

Friday’s win extended Djokovic’s winning streak at the Australian Open to 27 matches. After another dominant display, the 35-year-old reiterated how much he relished the vocal support of the fans on Rod Laver Arena, where he first lifted the Australian Open trophy in 2008.

“It means everything, especially at this stage of my career,” said Djokovic. “I need that engine, I need that energy and I’m really thankful that I still have enough gas in my legs to be able to play in this level on one of the biggest tennis courts in the world.”

Paul will be rewarded for reaching his maiden Grand Slam semi-final this fortnight in Melbourne with a spot in the Top 20 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings for the first time. The 25-year-old has risen 16 places to No. 19 in the Live Rankings behind his best major run.

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Bursting With Belief, Tsitsipas Ready For Final Step At Australian Open

  • Posted: Jan 27, 2023

Bursting With Belief, Tsitsipas Ready For Final Step At Australian Open

Greek plays for maiden major title and World No. 1 in Sunday’s Melbourne final

Getting over the line to claim Grand Slam glory is one of the toughest tests in the game, but Stefanos Tsitsipas believes he has never been more ready to achieve that feat ahead of his maiden Australian Open final.

“I’m playing great tennis, I’m enjoying myself. I just see no downside or negativity in what I’m trying to do out there,” said the Greek after his 7-6(2), 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 semi-final victory against Karen Khachanov on Friday in Melbourne. “Even if it doesn’t work, I’m very optimistic and positive about any outcome, any opponent that I have to face.

“This is something that has been sort of lacking in my game. I genuinely believe in what I’m able to produce. That is more than enough. I go about [it] this way… I strive for it every single day. It might not go the way I want it to, but I put 110 per cent out there.”

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Sunday’s championship match against Novak Djokovic or Tommy Paul will be an opportunity for Tsitsipas to banish any lingering disappointment from his first Grand Slam final, at Roland Garros in 2021. He led Djokovic by two-sets-to-love before falling to defeat on the Paris clay, but the Greek believes his improved ability to deal with difficult moments on court stands him in better stead this time around.

“I think it starts with confidence, your capabilities, what you can do out there,” he said. “I think frustration also builds when you start panicking or you feel completely off and completely not OK with your game. It has this tendency to build up over time, especially when you’re unable to find some sort of solutions within yourself.

“I definitely believe this is something that hasn’t been reoccurring. I have a good relationship with myself on the court. I think this is something that has given me that sort of attitude. Of course, less frustration than before.”

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Should he triumph in Sunday’s final, Tsitsipas will rise to No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings for the first time. The third-seeded Greek admitted that claiming top spot would represent the fulfilment of a long-held, burning ambition.

“I remember watching [tennis] on TV saying to myself, I want to be there one day myself,” said Tsitsipas. “I want to recreate that feeling for me. I knew that [it would be] a very long journey to get there. There are certain steps you have to take to give yourself the chance to be competing for something like this.

“But I very much believed it… First of all, it’s your ego that speaks. You either have it or not, you know? As a kid, I was very confident. Thank god I was good in my country. Starting from that, I knew if I’m able to get out of my country and compete in other countries, European leagues, European tours, I proved [to] myself, over and over again, that I’m actually good.

“I did finish as a junior No. 1. Now I want to do it in the men’s side, in men’s professional tennis.”

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Khachanov Keeps 'Head High' After Second Slam SF Run

  • Posted: Jan 27, 2023

Khachanov Keeps ‘Head High’ After Second Slam SF Run

18th seed defeated by Tsitsipas in four sets

Karen Khachanov backed up his semi-final showing at the 2022 US Open by matching his best Grand Slam result in Melbourne. After a 7-6(2), 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 defeat to Stefanos Tsitsipas on Friday in the Australian Open final four, the 18th seed spoke of “mixed feelings” after falling short of his first major final.

“Obviously I’m super happy, super proud of the [recent] results… second consecutive semi-final,” he said in his post-match press conference. “I fought hard. I was losing actually in the third set. He was serving for the match. He had two match points. I never give up.

“I think it was very close, a very good-level match. He took over in some important moments, some important points. He got the win, so simple as that.”

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The 26-year-old moved up seven places to No. 13 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings this fortnight, closing in on his career high of World No. 8 from 2019. After taking some time to recover, he is keen to build on the lessons and experience he gained from his latest deep run.

“I definitely go with my head high,” he said. “[I will] rest a couple of days, think with my team for [my upcoming] schedule… have a team meeting to discuss those particular situations and moments on what we need to work.

“Hopefully I keep believing that I can pass this step next time, if I am in this situation, hopefully. That’s it.”

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While Tsitsipas calls the Australian Open his ‘Home Slam’, Khachanov also enjoyed plenty of crowd support in Rod Laver Arena.

“Grateful for them to cheer, to support,” he said. “Just really happy to see everybody on that court to give me love all the way until the end.”

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Tsitsipas Shows Resolve To Reach First Melbourne Final, World No. 1 Within Grasp

  • Posted: Jan 27, 2023

Tsitsipas Shows Resolve To Reach First Melbourne Final, World No. 1 Within Grasp

Greek defeats Khachanov, awaits Djokovic or Paul in Sunday’s final

Stefanos Tsitsipas will play for his first Grand Slam title and the No. 1 Pepperstone ATP Ranking after he booked his place in the Australian Open final with a gritty win against Karen Khachanov. In a 7-6(2), 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 semi-final victory on Friday, the Greek dominated with his all-action game, keeping his opponent under constant pressure in the three-hour, 21-minute match.

What looked on course to be his fifth straight-sets win of the fortnight was complicated by a late Khachanov surge. The first-time Melbourne semi-finalist denied Tsitsipas’ attempt to serve out the match at 5-4 in the third set, and in the tie-break he saved two match points with fearless forehand winners, sparking a run of four points to steal the set.

But as he did after failing to serve out the opening set, the Greek responded, seeing home a 3-0 lead in the final set to advance.

“I thought about how hard I’ve worked to get into this position, and it takes a little bit more,” Tsitsipas said of his mentality entering the fourth set. “I wasn’t able to deliver that in the third set; I was extremely close to getting it.

“It’s one of these moments that if you stick around, if you dedicate yourself even more and if you concentrate on these important moments event more, it pays off quite well. And always having that ambience in the background somewhere feels so good when I’m able to hit the ball and get such a reward back from the fans.”

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The third seed awaits nine-time champion Novak Djokovic or unseeded American Tommy Paul in Sunday’s title match. If it is the Serbian across the net, the pair will contest a straight shootout for World No. 1 in a rematch of the 2021 Roland Garros final, won by Djokovic in five sets.

“These are the moments I’ve been working hard for. To be able to play finals like this, but finals that have bigger meaning that just a final,” he said in his on-court interview. “It’s a Grand Slam final, I’m fighting for the No. 1 spot. It’s a childhood dream to be capturing the No. 1 spot one day. I’m close. I’m happy that this opportunity comes here in Australia and not somewhere else, because this is a place of significance.

“Let’s do it guys!” he continued, addressing the Rod Laver Arena crowd that has helped fuel his run. “Let’s go!”

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As he has done all tournament, Tsitsipas built his success on big serves and punishing forehands, with a big helping from his defence and mental fortitude. The 24-year-old continued to crush his forehand with perhaps more conviction that at any point in his career, dictating points off that wing at every opportunity.

Tsitsipas overcame adversity in the first set, in which he twice led by a break only for Khachanov to immediately level on both occasions. Despite being called for multiple time violations and a foot fault as the set built toward a tie-break, Tsitsipas regrouped and was the steadier player at the crucial moments, taking control of the match with a one-sided finish to the set.

The third seed faced just one break point in the final three sets — the crucial moment when Khachanov broke from 30/15 as Tsitsipas tightened in his effort to serve out the match.

Late in set two, Tsitsipas used the point of the match to bring up 15/40 in the ninth game, retrieving three consecutive Khachanov overheads before claiming a 22-ball rally with a forehand winner. He went on to seal the break and serve out the set to love.

Tsitsipas did his damage early in set three, breaking in its third game, but he could not extend his lead despite forcing deuce in his next two return games. That came back to haunt him as Khachanov extended the match, but the Greek made no mistake the fourth set, clinching victory on his fourth match point.

After extending his perfect ATP Head2Head record to 6-0 against Khachanov, the Greek is through to his second Grand Slam final and his first in Melbourne after three previous semi-final defeats at what he calls his ‘home Slam’.

Khachanov was bidding to reach his first Grand Slam final in what was his 24th major appearance. The 26-year-old reached the semi-finals at consecutive majors after advancing to that stage of Slam for the first time at the 2022 US Open.

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