Australian Open: Rafael Nadal into semifinals, two match wins from 21st major title

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MELBOURNE, Australia — With another Australian Open semifinal spot secured after a four-hour, five-set victory, Rafael Nadal looked toward his support team in Rod Laver Arena and nodded his head.

It was like he was just confirming the plan: Five wins down, two to go in his bid for a men’s record 21st major title.

On the other side of the net, 14th-seeded Denis Shapovalov broke his racket on the hard blue court after a frustrating 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 loss to Nadal, who later acknowledged he felt “destroyed” physically on a hot Tuesday afternoon.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

There were plenty of momentum-shifting moments, including Nadal needing attention for a stomach ailment in the third and fourth sets after dominating the first two.

Shapovalov openly complained to chair umpire Carlos Bernardes during the quarterfinal match about Nadal getting longer breaks than players usually are entitled to, and taking too long between points.

He took a few shots at Nadal in his post-match news conference, too, saying he’s “100%” convinced the 35-year-old Spaniard receives special treatment.

At a tournament where he’s clinched the title only once (2009) and had lost seven of his previous 13 quarterfinals — by far his worst conversion rate at any of the four major tournaments — Nadal looked vulnerable in the third and fourth sets.

But following a seven-minute break — when Nadal left the court and went to the locker room — between the last point of the fourth set and his first serve in the fifth, he recovered sufficiently to save a break point with an ace, hold serve and then break Shapovalov for a 2-0 lead.

“I don’t know, was a little bit of miracle,” Nadal said of his revival. “I was destroyed honestly physically. But my serve worked well, and for me, every game that I was winning with my serve was a victory, no?”

He rejected any assertion that he gets any special treatment from umpires or referees, and added that Shapovalov was young and said he would get over it.

“I honestly feel sorry for him. I think he played a great match for a long time,” Nadal said. “Of course is tough to accept to lose a match like this, especially after I was feeling destroyed and probably he felt that, and then I was able to manage to win.

“I wish him all the very best … probably he will understand later on after he thinks the proper way that probably he was not right today.”

Nadal shares the men’s record of 20 major singles titles with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, and he’s got an inside run with the absence of his long-time rivals at Melbourne Park. Federer continues to recover from knee surgery, and Djokovic was deported for failing to meet Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

“I respect everything that Rafa has done and I think he’s an unbelievable player. But there’s got to be some boundaries,” Shapovalov said. “It’s just so frustrating as a player. You feel like you’re not just playing against the player; you’re playing against the umpires, you’re playing against so much more.

“Physically I feel fine. Just emotionally more, just sucks to lose that one,” the Wimbledon semifinalist added. “Definitely felt like I had it on my racket. And towards third, fourth, fifth set I felt like I was the better player, had more chances. Just one bad game for me.”

Nadal will get two days off before Friday’s semifinal match against Matteo Berrettini. The Wimbledon runner-up, who became the first Italian man to reach the Australian Open semifinals, held on to beat No. 17 Gael Monfils 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6, 6-2.

“I’m not 21 anymore!” said Nadal, who was sidelined with injuries after last year’s French Open and then had to overcome COVID-19. “After this … great to have two days off.

“I felt quite good physically in terms of movement. I really believe I’m going to be ready for the semifinals.”

The women’s quarterfinals were over in straight sets, with 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys beating French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova 6-3, 6-2 in the Day 9 opener on Rod Laver Arena and top-ranked Ash Barty advancing with a 6-2, 6-0 win over No. 21 Jessica Pegula.

Barty is back in the semifinals at Melbourne Park for the second time in three years; Keys is back seven years after losing her first Grand Slam semifinal to Serena Williams in Australia.

Barty, who won the Wimbledon title last year and the French Open in 2019, wants to become the first Australian woman to win the Australian Open singles title since 1978.

In her best run to date, she lost in the 2020 semifinals to eventual champion Sofia Kenin.

“I’ve grown as a person. I’ve grown as a player,” Barty said. “I feel like I’m a more complete player.”

Keys continued her resurgent 2022 season, extending her winning streak to 10 matches, including a title run in a tuneup event, and 11 overall for the year. She only won 11 matches in total in 2021, when her year-end ranking slumped to 56th.

“I did everything I could to rest this off-season and focus on starting fresh and new … starting from zero and not focusing on last year,” Keys said. “I think it’s going well so far.”

Krejcikova took a medical timeout while trailing 5-2 in the first set, with the temperature heading toward 90 degrees.

“It was the heat with some physical conditions that started to bother me after five games,” she said. “I mean, from there on, you know, I just couldn’t put it together.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with older veterans — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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U.S., China set for FIBA Women’s World Cup gold-medal game

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SYDNEY — Breanna Stewart and the United States used a dominant defensive effort to beat Canada and reach the gold-medal game of the FIBA Women’s World Cup for the fourth consecutive tournament.

Stewart scored 17 points and the Americans raced out to an early lead to put away Canada 83-43 on Friday, reaching a Saturday gold-medal game with China. The 43 points was the fewest scored in a semifinal game in World Cup history.

“Canada has been playing really well all tournament and the goal was just to come out there and really limit them,” said U.S. forward Alyssa Thomas. “We were really locked in from the jump with our game plan.”

China edged host Australia 61-59 in the later semifinal to reach its first global championship game since the 1994 Worlds, the last time it won a medal of any color. The U.S. beat China 77-63 in group play last Saturday, the Americans’ closest game of the tournament.

“Our goal was to to win a gold medal and we’re in position to do that,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said.

The U.S. (7-0), which is on a record pace for points and margin of victory in the tournament, took control of the game early scoring the first 15 points. The Americans contested every shot on the defensive end as the Canadians missed their first nine attempts from the field. On the offensive end, Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Thomas basically got any shot they wanted.

“I think after that punch, it really took the air out of them,” Thomas said. “They didn’t know what to do with their offense anymore after that.”

MORE: FIBA World Cup Schedule, Results

Laeticia Amihere, who plays at South Carolina for former U.S. coach Dawn Staley, finally got Canada on the board nearly 5 minutes into the game making a driving layup.

By the end of the quarter the U.S. led 27-7. Canada had committed four turnovers — the same number the team had against Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals which was the lowest total in a game in 30 years.

The Americans were up 45-21 at the half and the lead kept expanding in the final 20 minutes. The win was the biggest margin for the U.S. in the medal round topping the 36-point victory over Spain in the 2010 World Cup.

Canada (5-2) advanced to the medal round for the first time since 1986 and has a chance to win its first medal since taking the bronze that year.

“We didn’t get it done today, but what we’re going to do is take this with what we learned today and how we can turn it up tomorrow,” Canada captain Natalie Achonwa said. “It’s still a game for a medal and it’s just as important for us.”

The U.S. has won seven of the eight meetings with Canada in the World Cup, although the last one came in 2010. The lone victory for Canada came in 1975.

The victory was the 29th in a row in World Cup play for the Americans, who haven’t lost since the 2006 semifinals against Russia. The Soviet Union holds the World Cup record with 56 straight wins from 1959-86. This is only the second time in the Americans’ storied history they’ve reached four consecutive gold-medal contests. They also did it from 1979-90, winning three times.

This U.S. team, which has so many new faces on it, is on pace to break many of the team’s records that include scoring margin and points per game. The Americans also continued to dominate the paint even without 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, outscoring its opponents by an average of 55-24.

Amihere led Canada with eight points.

RECORD BREAKING

The low point total broke the mark of 53 that South Korea scored against Russia in 2002.

“We’re starting to build that identity,” Wilson said of the defensive effort. “We’re quick and scrappy and I think that’s our identity.”

The U.S. is averaging 101 points a game. The team’s best mark ever coming into the tournament was 99.1 set in 1994.

STILL RECOVERING

Kahleah Copper sat out after injuring her left hip in the win over Serbia in the quarterfinals. Copper landed hard on her hip driving to the basket and had to be helped off the court. She hopes to play on Saturday. Betnijah Laney, who also got hurt in the Serbia game, did play against Canada.

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