Rafael Nadal wins 11th French Open title, ties record

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PARIS (AP) — In full control of the French Open final, a rather familiar position for him, Rafael Nadal suddenly was worried.

He led by two sets plus a break early in the third, when the middle finger on his racket-wielding left hand was cramping so badly he couldn’t straighten it. After serving a fault, Nadal took the unusual step of heading to the sideline in the middle of a game.

“Tough moment,” Nadal would say later. “I was very scared.”

Up in the stands, Nadal’s uncle Toni, his former coach, was nervous, too, “because I thought maybe we can have a problem,” he said. “But in the end, it was not too difficult.”

It rarely is for Nadal at a place he has lorded over the way no other man ever has at any Grand Slam tournament. Nadal dealt with that ultimately minor inconvenience and claimed his record-extending 11th French Open championship Sunday by displaying his foe-rattling excellence in a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem.

“There is a reason why he won 11 times here,” said Thiem, a 24-year-old Austrian appearing in his first major final. “It’s definitely one of the best things somebody ever achieved in sport.”

Thiem was on the couch, watching on TV, in 2005, when Nadal earned his first Grand Slam trophy in Paris at age 19. That began a run of four consecutive French Open triumphs through 2008. He added five straight from 2010-14 and now has two in a row.

Throw in three titles at the U.S. Open, two at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open, and Nadal is up to 17 majors, second among men only to Roger Federer’s 20. The two stars have combined to win the past six Slams.

The victory also allowed the 32-year-old Nadal to hold onto the No. 1 ranking, ahead of Federer.

If there were any reason for a bit of intrigue entering Sunday, it was this: Thiem beat Nadal on red clay at Rome in May 2017 and again at Madrid last month.

But those are not quite the same as the French Open, where Nadal is 86-2 for his career.

“I am sure you will win here in the next couple of years,” Nadal told Thiem afterward.

Against many other opponents — maybe ANY other — Thiem would have made things interesting. He pounded huge serves that topped 135 mph (220 kph) — about 25 mph (40 kph) better than Nadal’s fastest — and translated into seven aces but also had five double-faults. He took the biggest of big cuts on groundstrokes, his feet leaving the ground as he threw his whole body into them, as if the very outcome — not of any individual point, but the whole shebang — depended on the strength of that one whip of his white racket. That led to 34 winners (eight more than Nadal) but also 42 unforced errors (18 more than Nadal).

It worked. For a bit.

Until 4-all, 15-all in the opening set, to be precise. Nadal held for 5-4, and Thiem basically handed over the next game — and the set — with four mistakes. A volley into the net. A forehand wide. A forehand into the net. A forehand long.

“Terrible misses,” Thiem acknowledged.

Just like that, Nadal was off on a five-game burst to lead 3-0 in the second set.

By then, Nadal was finding his spots. One down-the-line forehand winner landed right at the baseline, leaving Thiem sagging his shoulders and muttering. Another forehand winner from Nadal found a corner, and Thiem yelled toward his coach.

It was a cloudy and steamy afternoon, with the temperature at 77 degrees (24 Celsius) and the humidity approaching 70 percent. Midway through the opening set, Nadal’s aqua T-shirt was so soaked with sweat it stuck to him. Those conditions might have contributed to the cramping that affected Nadal about two hours into the final, at 2-1 in the third set.

“I was not able to move the hand, the finger,” Nadal said. “I was not (in) control of my finger.”

His uncle thought wrapping around Nadal’s left forearm was too tight. When he first halted play, Nadal removed that tape, which he said let his circulation improve. At the following changeover, he was given a salt pill by a doctor and had his left forearm massaged by a trainer. After guzzling water during that break, Nadal felt better and was back to playing his unmistakable brand of nearly unbeatable clay-court tennis.

Shortly, he’d be holding the silver trophy, the one he knows so well, and crying.

A few hours earlier, as Nadal and Thiem warmed up, the booming voice of the announcer at Court Philippe Chatrier detailed the bona fides of both. Nadal’s introduction included a year-by-year accounting of every time he’d already won the French Open.

The crowd responded at the mention of 2005, initially offering polite applause. It added more voices by the time 2008 rolled around. The crescendo rose to a full-throated roar for 2017.

Go ahead and 2018 to the lengthy list.

“If you tell me seven, eight years ago that I will be here … having this trophy with me again, I will tell you that is something almost impossible,” Nadal said. “But here we are.”

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MORE: At last, a Grand Slam title for Simona Halep

Aryna Sabalenka wins Australian Open for first Grand Slam singles title

Aryna Sabalenka Australian Open 2023
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MELBOURNE, Australia — One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself — and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ’Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.′ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy — she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check — she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now — is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph, Sabalenka’s at 119 mph.

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”

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Matt Weston, Susanne Kreher win first world skeleton titles; Olympic champs struggle

Matt Weston
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Great Britain’s Matt Weston and German Susanne Kreher consolidated breakout post-Olympic seasons by winning world skeleton titles in St. Moritz, Switzerland, on Friday.

Weston, 15th at last year’s Olympics, prevailed by 1.79 seconds combining times from four runs, the largest margin of victory at worlds for men or women since 2012.

Weston became the second British man to win a world skeleton title after Kristan Bromley in 2008. The 25-year-old from Surrey left taekwondo at age 17 due to a reported back injury and has three wins in six World Cups this season after considering quitting the sport over the summer, according to the BBC.

“What happened there [at Beijing 2022] hit us all really hard, and it took a while to get over,” he said, speaking of the whole British skeleton team that had no top-10 finishes after medals in the last five Olympics, according to the BBC.

Italian Amedeo Bagnis, whose best World Cup finish is eighth, took silver, a year after placing 11th at the Olympics. South Korean Jeong Seung-Gi earned bronze by one hundredth over Brit Chris Thompson, a year after placing 10th at the Olympics.

Kreher, a 24-year-old sprint convert in her first full World Cup season, won by one hundredth of a second over Olympic bronze medalist Kimberley Bos of the Netherlands. Mimi Rahneva took bronze for Canada’s first Olympic or world skeleton medal since 2015.

Kreher extended Germany’s streak to six consecutive women’s world titles. Kreher, last year’s world junior champion, has three World Cup podiums this season, but no wins on the circuit.

Germany’s reigning Olympic champions Christopher Grotheer and Hannah Neise were 10th and 15th, respectively. Tina Hermann, who won the last three women’s world titles, was fifth.

Two other Olympic champions were absent: 2014 gold medalist Aleksandr Tretiyakov is out due to the ban on Russians for the war in Ukraine. Yun Sung-Bin, a 2018 gold medalist, is taking this season off but is expected to come back, according to the South Korean federation.

The top Americans were Hallie Clarke in 10th for the women and Austin Florian in 19th for the men. The last U.S. medalist at worlds was Noelle Pikus-Pace, who took silver in 2013.

Katie Uhlaender, the top U.S. finisher at the last worlds and last Olympics (sixth both times), has not competed this season after rupturing a tendon in her right ankle two months ago.

Worlds continue with the women’s monobob and two-man bobsled events Saturday and Sunday.

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