U.S. Open tennis tournament moves forward with no-fans plan

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Moving closer to holding the first Grand Slam tournament of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Tennis Association is awaiting the go-ahead from the New York state government to play the U.S. Open in New York starting in August — without fans and with strict health protocols.

“We’re ready to move forward,” USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said in a telephone interview Monday, “as long as we get all the approvals we need.”

A formal announcement could come this week.

“We’ve received a proposal and we’re reviewing it,” Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, wrote in an email.

Like many sports, the professional tennis tours have been suspended since March because of the pandemic. The French Open was postponed from May and currently is slated to start a week after the Sept. 13 end of the U.S. Open; Wimbledon was canceled altogether for the first time since World War II in 1945.

Even if the state OKs the U.S. Open, one significant question would remain: Which players actually would participate?

Such top names as both No. 1-ranked players, Novak Djokovic and Ash Barty, and defending men’s champion Rafael Nadal, have expressed reservations about heading to Flushing Meadows, where an indoor tennis facility was used as a temporary home for hundreds of hospital beds at the height of the city’s coronavirus crisis.

Already ruled out, regardless: Roger Federer, who has won five of his men’s-record 20 Grand Slam singles titles at the U.S. Open but announced recently that he is out for the rest of the year after needing a second arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.

With international TV contracts — including an annual average of $70 million from ESPN alone — helping offset the loss of money from ticket sales and other onsite revenue, and facing a recession that already led to the recent elimination of more than 100 jobs at the USTA, the association’s board decided to go forward with its marquee event despite concerns about COVID-19 and international travel.

“At the end of the day, there are three factors involved in the decision-making. No. 1 is creating a plan that has health and safety at the forefront. No. 2 is whether conducting the U.S. Open is the right thing for the sport of tennis. And No. 3 is whether it can be done in a financially viable manner. We believe we can hit all three of the objectives,” Widmaier said. “But we do need to approach this in a step-by-step manner, and when all of the steps are completed, that is when we can make an official announcement.”

The plan shared with the state government includes: zero spectators; limited player entourages; assigned hotels; increased cleaning at the tournament grounds; extra locker room space; daily temperature checks and occasional testing for COVID-19.

There would be no qualifying for singles and likely reduced fields for doubles. Players whose rankings would have put them in qualifying rounds that allow some men and women access to the 128-player singles draws will be compensated with funds the USTA will pass along to the ATP and WTA tours to distribute.

Also part of the proposal shared with players: The Cincinnati hard-court tournament scheduled for Aug. 16-23 — the USTA is its majority owner — would be moved to New York and held in place of U.S. Open qualifying.

Last week, Djokovic said the restrictions that would be in place for the U.S. Open in New York because of the virus would be “extreme.”

“Most of the players I have talked to were quite negative on whether they would go there,” Djokovic said.

He hosted exhibition matches with packed stands last week in his home country of Serbia, where the government lifted most lockdowns and restrictions last month.

“I have concerns, too,” Barty wrote in an email. “I understand the tournaments are eager to run, but keeping everyone safe has to be the priority.”

Widmaier said the USTA has been consulting with the ATP and WTA about its setup.

“Our stated goal has been that, if we could build a plan in conjunction with medical and security experts that mitigated the risks of COVID-19 and assured the health and well-being of all U.S. Open participants, we very much want to move ahead with the tournament,” he said. “We believe, by working in the collaborative manner with these experts and the two tours, we have such a plan.”

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Aryna Sabalenka wins Australian Open for first Grand Slam singles title

Aryna Sabalenka Australian Open 2023
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MELBOURNE, Australia — The serves were big. So big. Other shots, too. The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

And so it was immediately apparent in the Australian Open women’s final between Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina that the one who could manage to keep her serve in line, get a read on returns and remain steady at the tightest moments would emerge victorious.

That turned out to be Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus, who won her first Grand Slam title by coming back to beat Wimbledon champion Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 at Melbourne Park on Saturday night, using 17 aces among her 51 total winners to overcome seven double-faults.

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, I would say.”

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

Now 11-0 in 2023 with two titles already, she is a powerful player whose most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Long capable of hammering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including more than 20 apiece in some matches.

After much prodding from her group, she finally agreed to undergo an overhaul of her serving mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to stay calm in the most high-pressure moments, is really paying off now.

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.

But Sabalenka turned things around with an aggressive style and, importantly, by breaking Rybakina three times, the last coming for a 4-3 lead in the third set that was never relinquished.

Still, Sabalenka needed to work for the championship while serving in what would be the last game, double-faulting on her initial match point and requiring three more to close things out.

When Rybakina sent a forehand long to cap the final after nearly 2 1/2 hours, Sabalenka dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Sabalenka was 0-3 in Grand Slam semifinals until eliminating Magda Linette in Melbourne. Now Sabalenka has done one better and will rise to No. 2 in the rankings.

As seagulls were squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded booming serves. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph (195 kph), Sabalenka’s at 119 mph (192 kph). They traded zooming groundstrokes from the baseline, often untouchable, resulting in winner after winner.

“Hopefully,” Rybakina said afterward, “we’re going to have many more battles.”

The key statistic, ultimately, was this: Sabalenka accumulated 13 break points, Rybakina seven. Sabalenka’s trio of conversions was enough, and the constant pressure she managed to apply during Rybakina’s service games had to take a toll.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, an average of once per match. It took Rybakina fewer than 10 minutes of action and all of two receiving games to get the measure of things and lead 2-1, helped by getting back one serve that arrived at 117 mph (189 kph).

A few games later, Sabalenka returned the favor, also putting her racket on one of Rybakina’s offerings at that same speed. Then, when Sabalenka grooved a down-the-line backhand passing winner to grab her first break and pull even at 4-all, she looked at Dubrov and Stacy in the stands, raised a fist and shouted.

In the next game, though, Sabalenka gave that right back, double-faulting twice — including on break point — to give Rybakina a 5-4 edge. This time, Sabalenka again turned toward her entourage, but with a sigh and an eye roll and arms extended, as if to say, “Can you believe it?”

Soon after, Rybakina held at love to own that set.

Sabalenka changed the momentum right from the get-go in the second set. Aggressively attacking, she broke to go up 3-1, held for 4-1 and eventually served it out, fittingly, with an ace — on a second serve, no less.

Sabalenka acknowledged ahead of time that she expected to be nervous. Which makes perfect sense: This was the most important match of her career to date.

And if those jitters were evident ever-so-briefly early — she double-faulted on the evening’s very first point — and appeared to be resurfacing as the end neared, Sabalenka controlled them well enough to finish the job.

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Germany sweeps women’s luge medals at world championships

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Olympic silver medalist Anna Berreiter led a German sweep of the women’s medals at the world luge championships at home in Oberhof on Saturday.

Berreiter prevailed by 58 thousandths of a second over defending world champion Julia Taubitz combining times from two runs. At 23, she is the youngest women’s world champion since American Erin Hamlin in 2009.

Dajana Eitberger, who won the sprint world title on Friday, rounded out Saturday’s podium. Summer Britcher was the top American in 12th.

A German woman has won 38 of the last 43 world titles dating to 1962.

German women also won the last seven Olympic titles dating to 1998. Natalie Geisenberger, who won the last three Olympic golds, is sitting out this season due to pregnancy.

Germany has won the first seven events of worlds with two left on Sunday — the traditional men’s event and the team relay. Germany last swept the luge worlds golds in 2013, back when there were four events.

Earlier Saturday, Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken won their fifth consecutive world title, beating longtime rivals and countrymen Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt by .171. Wendl and Arlt won the last three Olympic titles. Americans Zack DiGregorio and Sean Hollander placed seventh on Saturday.

Jessica Degenhardt and Cheyenne Rosenthal repeated as world champions in women’s doubles, an event that makes its Olympic debut in 2026. Chevonne Forgan and Sophia Kirkby were the top Americans in sixth.

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