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    Djokovic, After U.S. Open, Says He Is Working on the Mental Side of Tennis

    Eight days after his abrupt disqualification from the United States Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball, Novak Djokovic said that he saw the incident as an opportunity to improve the mental side of his game and that he hoped he could be a “wiser” player as a result.“I’m working mentally and emotionally as hard as I am physically, trying to be the best version of myself on the court, off the court,” Djokovic said Monday from Rome, where he will compete in the Italian Open this week. “I understand that I have outbursts and it’s the personality and kind of player that I have always been.”He added: “Obviously I went through ups and downs in my career, managing to control my emotions more or less. But you’re alone out there, it’s a lot of intensity, a lot of pressure, and you have to deal with all of that.”Djokovic spoke with reporters at length Monday for the first time since he was defaulted in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. While behind in the first set against Pablo Carreño Busta, Djokovic hit a ball about 40 feet, from the court toward a back wall, where it hit a line judge in the throat. She collapsed, and Djokovic tried to comfort her. After a lengthy discussion with tournament officials, he was disqualified, upending the men’s singles draw.“The rules are clear when it comes to that,” Djokovic said. “I accepted it, and I had to move on.”Until then, Djokovic had not lost a match all season and was heavily favored to win the U.S. Open, which would have been his 18th Grand Slam tournament title. Dominic Thiem, seeded second, beat Alexander Zverev for the title on Sunday night in a thriller that ended with a tiebreaker in the fifth set.Djokovic admitted that his disqualification, although somewhat unlucky, was “not completely out of the blue” given his propensity for expressing anger on the court, which has sometimes included being reckless with equipment.At the 2016 French Open, he swiped his racket in anger and it slipped out of his hand, just missing a line judge. He could have been defaulted, but he went on to win the tournament — his only French Open victory.Later that season, he quibbled with a reporter at the ATP Finals after hitting a ball into the stands without hitting anyone. The reporter said it could have been dangerous for spectators.“It could have been, yes,” Djokovic said at the time, bristling at the reporter’s suggestion that the behavior might be part of a pattern. “It could have snowed in O2 Arena, as well, but it didn’t.”His defiance then appeared to be much different from his sentiment on Monday, when he said he was “really sorry to cause the shock and drama” for the line judge who was hit.“She didn’t deserve that in any way,” he said. “She obviously is volunteering as well and doing her work. She loves tennis, and she’s been there, as I understood, for quite a few years.”He stopped short of guaranteeing something similar would not happen in future tournaments, but said he would certainly remember it and learn from it.“I don’t think I’ll have any major issues coming back to the tour and being able to perform well and hit the tennis ball — of course, during the point,” he said.At the coming French Open, Djokovic will aim to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win each Grand Slam tournament twice. He said he was glad to have new goals to focus on right away, though he still considers the 12-time French Open champion, Rafael Nadal, as the clear favorite.“Rafa obviously decided to stay on clay and practice, and surely that gives him more advantage,” Djokovic said of Nadal, the 2019 U.S. Open champion who skipped an attempt at a repeat because of the coronavirus pandemic.“Even if he didn’t practice for that long on clay, he would still be the No. 1 favorite in Roland Garros or any other clay tournament because he’s Rafa,” Djokovic added. “Playing on clay, he’s the ultimate challenge.”Nadal is among many players, including second-ranked Simona Halep, who will be returning to major competition after declining to travel to the United States during the health crisis.“It’s obvious that to feel 100 percent, you need matches. But here I am,” Nadal said Monday. “I arrived with plenty of time to try to have the right practices.”At the Italian Open, Nadal will play his first match against Carreño Busta, who after facing Djokovic reached the U.S. Open semifinal.“It’s going to be a good test,” Nadal said. “I’m excited about going back to competition, without big expectations.”Halep figures to be the top seed in the women’s singles draw at the French Open because the defending champion, Ashleigh Barty, the WTA No. 1, does not plan to play.Like Nadal, Halep said she had “no regrets” about choosing to skip the U.S. Open.“Of course I’m sad I didn’t play, it’s normal, but I feel like my decision was great for the health issue and to feel relaxed inside,” Halep said.Halep, the 2018 French Open champion, won a WTA tournament in Prague on clay last month.“I always have been secure and happy on the clay, and now I’ve had four or five months playing only on clay — I’m not used to that,” Halep said. “I feel comfortable and ready to play here. I love this tournament. I love French Open, so hopefully I can play my best and win some matches.”Watching the U.S. Open and Djokovic’s disqualification, Halep said, was a reminder to consider the safety of others on the court.“We have to really be careful because people are around us and we don’t have to react that bad during the matches because it’s just a tennis match,” she said. “It was not nice for anybody.” More

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    At U.S. Open Wheelchair Finals, Players Are Glad the Events Were Held at All

    When the United States Open announced its plans in June for this year’s tournament, it included the elimination of the junior draws, the singles qualifying draws and the mixed doubles draws because of the coronavirus pandemic. But perhaps the biggest outcry came from the smallest contingent of the tournament: the men and women in the wheelchair divisions.“It was a natural reaction, and very fair on their part,” the tournament director, Stacey Allaster, said in an interview on Sunday. “We did not make any decision lightly. It was always done on how we could mitigate risk for the health and well-being of all.”The tournaments were cut back because of a need to keep the number of people at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to a minimum. But after 10 days of objections, the wheelchair tournaments were back on — at full strength.Andy Lapthorne, the 2019 champion in the quad singles division, said that “to be told you wouldn’t be coming back to defend the title, that was a tough pill to swallow.”Dylan Alcott, the runner-up to Lapthorne last year, described the omission of wheelchair players as “disgusting discrimination.” Allaster sharply disagreed with that assessment, saying that there had been cutbacks across all divisions, not just in the wheelchair tournaments.“At no time was there any form of discrimination,” she said.Alfie Hewett, the champion in wheelchair men’s singles in the two previous years, was unhappy with the initial cancellation but praised the reversal.“It’s hard, when the decision first came out, that we didn’t get consulted from a player point of view,” Hewett said. “We found out from social media. But the way they turned it around was obviously good.”Still, the athletes had support. Lapthorne praised Andy Murray, the British star who won the 2012 U.S. Open men’s singles tournament, for using social media to call attention to the wheelchair athletes.“That changes the game straight away,” Lapthorne said. “He has the profile to do that. There’s not many players out there who would have done that, so we have to thank him, because he had the courage to support us and back us.”Lapthorne, who lost in the round-robin stages of the quad singles tournament but won the doubles title alongside Alcott, said that wheelchair athletes felt validated by being heard and allowed to participate.“To make sure we’re included in these things the same as the able-bodied players is massive, and I think we’ve proven this week that there was no reason why this shouldn’t have happened,” he said.David Wagner, a runner-up in the quad doubles final and the most prominent American wheelchair player, praised the U.S. Open for how it had treated the wheelchair athletes as a full part of the show in on-court productions. But he said the scheduling could still have been changed to prevent the wheelchair tournament from being so heavily overshadowed by the other competitions.“Sometimes in wheelchair tennis, we don’t get quite the spectators that the able-bodieds get, right?” Wagner said. “So here we are playing the doubles final at the same time Azarenka and Osaka are playing. If that had happened, and this place was packed with fans, Louis Armstrong would have been about as dead as it was” already because of the virus, he said.Alcott, who among the players had been particularly critical of the U.S.T.A., found parity in proximity: The suite he was given inside Arthur Ashe Stadium was right next to that of one of tournament’s biggest stars.“I’m next to Osaka, and I really appreciate that,” Alcott said. “They’re treating us as equals. To the whole team, I appreciate them changing their mind.”Alcott lost the quad singles final on Sunday to the Dutch wild card Sam Schroder, showing the depth of the field in the division players which players have long cited as a reason for expanding the draw.Allaster said future accommodations were coming soon, including the long-desired doubling of the quad singles field from just four players to eight.“We will be the first Grand Slam to expand,” Allaster pledged. “It’s unfortunate that we never got the opportunity this year, but if it’s within our ability next year to do so, with everything going on with Covid, that would be a great new addition in 2021.” More

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    Automated Judging Has Changed the U.S. Open. Except in a Crucial Moment

    An experiment in automation that could change tennis has been well received at this year’s United States Open, but it might have been a bigger hit if Novak Djokovic had lost his cool on a court that was included in the trial run.The experiment is Hawk-Eye Live, a fully electronic line-calling system that was used for the first time in a Grand Slam tournament. It eliminates the need for line umpires, leaving only a chair umpire on court, and makes the machine the final and only word.“Most of the players really liked it. You never have to question one single call,” said Thomas Johansson, a former top-10 player who is now coaching a current top-10 player, David Goffin.Johansson and some others in the tennis community are convinced that if not for a sponsorship agreement with the fashion company Ralph Lauren, which supplies the uniforms for the line umpires, there would also have been all-electronic line-calling on the two main show courts, at Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium.“The players were really upset that they didn’t have it on all the courts, but there was a reason,” Johansson said. “Ralph Lauren.”But Stacey Allaster, the U.S. Open tournament director, said that sponsorship agreements — JPMorgan Chase Bank also sponsors the electronic review system — were just one factor in the decision to remain old school at Ashe and Armstrong.More important, Allaster said, was wanting Hawk-Eye Live to be foolproof and needing to decide several months ago whether to use it.“We weren’t sure if it was going to work, so what we wanted to make sure of was that we had this balance that never would Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong go down,” she said. “We always knew if the system failed on the outside courts, we would always have tennis.”The twist is that staying traditional on the main courts also played a role in the tournament’s losing Djokovic, the No. 1 men’s player, much sooner than expected.He was disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct in the first set of his fourth-round match at Ashe Stadium against Pablo Carreño Busta on Sunday, after inadvertently hitting a line umpire in the throat when smacking a ball toward the back wall after losing his serve.If Djokovic had struck the same ball on a court with Hawk-Eye Live, no line umpire would have been in the line of fire.“Novak would have been fine, everything would have been good,” said Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a veteran American player. “So it was kind of ironic.”Djokovic has apologized for hitting the judge and for the outburst, saying it would prompt him to “go back within and work on my disappointment.” But he has not spoken in detail about the incident, and it is not clear whether he failed to recall, in a flash of frustration, that line judges were on the court.The week before the Open, Djokovic played (and won) an entire tournament that used only the automated system. That was the Western & Southern Open, which was played at the U.S. Open site, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and became the first regular men’s and women’s tour event to go fully electronic.At this point in the U.S. Open, most of the matches have moved to Ashe and Armstrong stadiums, where judges are used. Wheelchair tournaments will still be played on the outside courts this week.“We know if players are unhappy with something, and I haven’t had one player come to me with any issues,” Allaster said.The system had made 225,000 calls with 14 errors during the first week of the tournament, said James Japhet, the managing director of Hawk-Eye North America, who has been in New York overseeing the system’s use.“Fourteen is a larger number than we hoped for,” he said. “But all things considered, 14 out of 225,000 isn’t too bad.”It turns out that even electronic line-calling is subject to human error.Japhet said the Hawk-Eye operator in the control room had sometimes selected the wrong service box, which meant that a few balls that landed in the correct service box were wrongly called out. Other errors occurred when the review official, who is responsible for determining foot faults with the aid of the Hawk-Eye cameras, failed to trigger the system, Japhet said.Introducing the system in New York without spectators presented other challenges. For outside courts that are close together, there was concern that, without crowd noise, players might mistake a call from another court as applying to their own. To avoid confusion, a prerecorded man’s voice was used on one court, and a woman’s voice on the adjacent court.Japhet sees another potential moneymaker here. “A tournament could use a sponsor’s name instead of ‘out,’” he said.That, of course, could risk a backlash if players and fans were subjected to hearing, say, “Ralph Lauren” 225,000 times.For now, the only debate that matters is whether the system should become part of the regular tour. It was used this time because tournament organizers wanted to keep the number of people on site to a minimum. Instead of the usual 350 line umpires, the U.S. Open made do with 74 this year.Hawk-Eye Live is clearly useful in speeding up play and providing greater accuracy. But it also eliminates the human element on two levels — by making line umpires obsolete and ending the suspense over player challenges.When tennis instituted electronic line-calling and video replay in 2006, Arlen Kantarian, then the chief executive of the United States Association, successfully pushed for players to have a limited number of challenges. Kantarian, a former N.F.L. executive, believed a system similar to professional football’s would create entertainment value.That has proved true. But has the time come to eliminate all doubt?In a quarterfinal on Wednesday, first Serena Williams and then her opponent, Tsvetana Pironkova, failed to challenge line calls that were incorrect and would have been overturned. Pironkova’s non-challenge was particularly important, coming at 3-3, 30-30 in the second set on a Williams second serve that should have been called a double fault, giving Pironkova a break point at a key stage of the match.“It would be one thing if we didn’t have the technology to get the call right all the time, but we do,” Mattek-Sands said. “Tennis literally has one million other stories that can make tennis exciting and entertaining.”Replays of close calls are still seen. “Any point-ending rally shot within 150 millimeters of the line goes up” on a screen, said Sean Cary, the senior director for officiating at the United States Tennis Association.But the call remains the call. There is no method for a player to contest it.As for line umpires, who are also often fans and ambassadors of the game, Allaster maintains that they can be converted to other positions.“We need to keep them engaged, because they are part of our mission to help us promote and grow the game,” Allaster said. “We can see it evolving with different roles.”For now, of course, the status quo still has status. The French Open, the Grand Slam tournament that starts later this month, will not use electronic line-judging. It is played on clay, where chair umpires still check the ball marks manually.The ATP Tour is expected to make wider use of Hawk-Eye Live in tournaments later this year. Carlos Silva, chief executive of World Team Tennis, an American league that has used the system for the last three years, believes the rate of adoption will increase even after the pandemic.“It’s time,” he said. “They will bring prices in line, because they will have more customers. Everyone hits the ball so hard. There’s no way for human eyes to see it better than a computer.”It also speeds up play and could decrease expenses. Though the system costs more than $25,000 per court, a tournament could save on wages, food and lodging for line umpires.But ultimately it will be up to the leaders of the U.S. Open and the other major tournaments to weigh the pros and cons and decide.“Right now our focus is to get to Sept. 13,” Allaster said of this particularly challenging edition of the Open. “This obviously will be a significant part of our debrief going forward.” More

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    A Deep U.S. Open Run Becomes a Pitch For College Tennis

    The most stunning thing about Jennifer Brady’s stunning run to the semifinals of the United States Open is that it included a stop in college, at the University of California, Los Angeles.Attending college was long considered a major no-no for anyone serious about having a successful tennis career. The lure of the American college experience has even been blamed, at times, for the country’s failure to produce more top stars. American players, especially men, the thinking went, were choosing fraternity parties and the pressure-free idyll of a cushy campus life over the hard, lonely work of playing for their next meal and climbing the rungs of professional tennis in the sport’s backwaters, the way the top European prospects do.Now Brady, like Danielle Collins, who made the semifinals of the Australian Open last year after playing for the University of Virginia, has some of the top minds in tennis thinking, Maybe this college thing isn’t such a bad idea after all.Tennis is far more of a power game than it used to be, even just a decade ago. Most players do not break through until their early 20s. Given that shift, college suddenly seems like an attractive place for promising, if not prodigal, teenagers to mature, both physically and mentally, before embarking on the nomadic, do-or-die life of the pro circuit.“It’s going to be a trend in the future,” said John Evert, who runs the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., where Brady spent her teen years before he blessed her decision to attend U.C.L.A. “College tennis isn’t just team practices and dual matches anymore. Coaches are recruiting as a place where you can develop into a pro.”It may take a few more Bradys for a trend to form. It has been a long time since John McEnroe made the semifinals of Wimbledon at 18, before starting his freshman year at Stanford. McEnroe was following in the tradition of past champions like Stan Smith (University of Southern California) and Arthur Ashe (U.C.L.A.), though he did leave Stanford after one year.Brady, 25, who plays Naomi Osaka on Thursday night, is the first former collegian to make the women’s semifinal since 1987. Billie Jean King, who went to the California State University, Los Angeles, was the last woman who attended college to make the final, in 1974.On the men’s side, J.J. Wolf, 21, fresh off a stellar career at Ohio State, made it to the third round at this year’s U.S. Open. Cameron Norrie, 25, who is British and attended Texas Christian University, also made the final 32, beating the No. 9 seed, Diego Schwartzman, along the way.“It’s coming back because players have gotten so big, so strong, so good, that it is almost impossible for a 17-year-old to compete with the big players,” Jimmy Arias, director of the tennis program at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., said of the allure of college.Forty years ago, Arias was 15, holding his own against players in the top 100. He turned pro at 16 in 1980 and by 1983, he was No. 6 in the world. “I don’t think there’s any way today that a 15-year-old boy could beat a top 100 player,” he said.Brady said she decided to go to college for a very simple reason: She was not good enough to play professionally.“If you were to tell me that when I left, if I were to go to college in 2013 at U.C.L.A. and seven years from then I would be in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, I would probably laugh,” Brady said the other day, before she crushed Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan in that quarterfinal. “I wasn’t ready to play on the big stage. I definitely wasn’t ready to perform or compete with any of these other players.”Brady has been something of a surprise since the beginning of her tennis life. Her father, Pat, worked in student services at Evert Academy, which John Evert founded with his sister, Chris, the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion, and their father, Jimmy. One night, John Evert’s secretary told him there was a young girl hitting on the courts who was not a student. “She said, ‘I don’t know who she is, but she is really good. You should go have a look,’” he recalled during an interview on Wednesday.When Pat Brady saw Evert watching, he wandered over and told him the 10-year-old was his daughter. Evert enrolled her in the program the next day.During her high school years, Brady’s talent was obvious. At tournaments, other players, coaches and parents all took notice of the 5-foot-11 girl with the big serve and whipping forehand. But Brady could not figure out how to win consistently.Stella Sampras-Webster, the coach at U.C.L.A., said the first time she saw Brady play during a recruiting trip at Evert Academy, she could see Brady was gifted athletically and had all of the shots.“She just hadn’t figured out yet what to do with them,” Sampras-Webster said. “She made errors because of her poor selection.”At U.C.L.A., Brady took every opportunity to hit with teammates or anyone else at her level. One of the major disadvantages of college tennis is that the N.C.A.A. limits how much time coaches can spend with players. So anyone with hopes for a pro career has to have the discipline to train outside of organized team activities.Sampras-Webster said she would often see Brady hitting with members of the men’s team or even male club players, or alone on the courts serving a bucket of balls. After two seasons that included an N.C.A.A. team championship, Brady decided she was ready to give pro tennis a shot.Martin Blackman, the director of player development for the United States Tennis Association, said Brady showed the opportunity to get to the top ranks of the pros through the college ranks was increasingly hard to dismiss.“So much of that is dependent on the program, the coach, and the commitment of the player,” Blackman said. “If those are in place, you can kind of duplicate a part of the pathway in college as opposed to grinding it out on tour.”Of course, as long as there are teen stars, like the 16-year-old Coco Gauff, succeeding on the court and reaping the financial rewards, turning professional will always be a first choice. Gauff and two other girls born in 2004, Robin Montgomery and Katrina Scott, are living proof that a college scholarship will remain Plan B, even though only Scott won a match at the U.S. Open this year.It is, though, a safer and far less costly choice, since being a top player requires paying for a coach and physiotherapist and others, and having a parent, if you are a teenager, to travel. In most cases, there are only three primary sources to finance that — family, sponsors and prize money. Anyone who does not win will not have a sponsor for very long, and having an education to fall back on is never a bad thing.“Our sport is dysfunctionally expensive,” John Evert said. “If you are going to go out there and forego college, you better have a good team around you and you better have a lot of money.” More

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    At the U.S. Open, Players From Belarus Eye Unrest at Home

    With the No. 1 ranking, two Grand Slam tennis tournament titles and an Olympic gold medal, Victoria Azarenka is one of the most famous Belarusian athletes of the past decade.But despite reaching her first Grand Slam quarterfinal in more than four years at the United States Open this week, Azarenka is an afterthought at home, in a country normally enamored with sports but currently rapt by mass protests against Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the autocratic president known often as “Europe’s last dictator.”Lukashenko, in office since 1994, has been clinging to power and brutally suppressing demonstrations in the weeks since he claimed a landslide victory in the Aug. 9 election. Lukashenko said he earned 80 percent of the vote, but many Western governments have called the election a farce.At the U.S. Open, where five Belarusian women and one man won at least one match in the main singles draws, the unrest has become a topic of repeated, if halting, conversation.With some exceptions, the players have largely resisted the substance of what is happening in Belarus, with many refusing to say directly whether they support Lukashenko or his opposition.But they have said they think their run at the first major tennis tournament since the coronavirus pandemic has been a footnote at home, despite state media normally closely following the performances of Belarusian athletes and Lukashenko often an active promoter of athletics and fitness. (As he downplayed the threat of the coronavirus earlier this year, Lukashenko promoted hockey, vodka, saunas and farm work as potential cures.)Belarus has long had a connection to tennis, with a handful of consistently competitive players since the 1990s as part of an influx of Eastern Europeans into the sport, especially on the women’s side of the game.Yet Olga Govortsova, who reached the second round, said, “Sport is not important right now.”Govortsova primarily lives and trains in Sunrise, Fla., but she has stayed in close touch with family in Belarus and said they are staying out of the current unrest.“But they see a lot of people going to protest, and sometimes it’s scary to walk outside,” Govortsova said. “It’s crazy for Belarus.”Aryna Sabalenka, who was seeded fifth in singles but lost in the second round to Azarenka, said she was preoccupied by her family’s safety after arriving in the United States to play in several tournaments. During her first tournament here, in Lexington, Ky., a restless Sabalenka “couldn’t sleep,” growing increasingly frantic as she waited for her mother to answer her message.“I was really worried about her and she didn’t respond to me,” Sabalenka said. “I forgot the internet there wasn’t working and I just called her and as soon as I heard her voice I felt a little bit better and I could sleep.” She added that it was difficult for several weeks, but that “hopefully everything will be calm.”Both Govortsova and Sabalenka posted a meme titled “Belarusians Lives Matter” on Instagram last month. Sabalenka included a caption that said: “I can’t look at cruelty to people who are defenseless; please stop the violence.”The most politically outspoken Belarusian player has been the youngest: Vera Lapko, 21, attended a protest in Minsk, the Belarus capital, before reaching the second round of the U.S. Open.“There were a lot of people,” Lapko said. “They all were peaceful. They all were happy that they can show their opinions, show their emotions, about all that is happening right now. It was really nice to be there next to them.”While playing, Lapko wore red and white, evoking the flags that have become symbolic for opposition to Lukashenko.“I decided to keep that to show that I’m with the people,” she said.Had she won one more round in New York, Lapko would have faced another Belarusian, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, in the third round. After her first-round match, Sasnovich immediately said “no comments” when the subject of Belarus was broached.Sasnovich, who along with Sabalenka led Belarus to the 2017 Fed Cup final against the United States, has spoken of the pep talks she and her teammates had received from Lukashenko before the matches, which were held in Minsk.“He said ‘Come on girls, you can do it, Belarus is better than America,’” Sasnovich said in a 2018 interview.Belarus narrowly lost that final and Lukashenko expressed his disappointment while praising the team’s “spirit.”“We men are nothing at all: we play very badly in tennis, football and hockey. Therefore, all hope fell on these delicate girls’ shoulders,” Lukashenko said. “We can just say that they played very well — but they could have won.”In 2010, Lukashenko attended an exhibition in Minsk between Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki, and enthusiastically accepted Azarenka’s invitation to come down on the court and play.In an interview with The New York Times in 2017, Azarenka, who won a gold medal in mixed doubles at the 2012 London Olympics, said she was once invited to meet Lukashenko and wound up talking about tennis with him for “seven hours straight.”“My mom thought I was, I don’t know, kidnapped,” Azarenka joked then.Azarenka’s tone about Belarus and Lukashenko has been considerably more serious and hesitant this year, calling it a “very difficult topic to speak on.”“That’s breaking my heart to see what’s happening, because not being able to be there and understand the whole situation, it’s really sad,” Azarenka said last month. “It’s really sad, and it’s really difficult to speak on that. But I just hope that all the violence stops immediately, really does, because it’s really heartbreaking. I can’t even speak without tears in my eyes when I think about it.”After beating Sabalenka last week, Azarenka said she hoped people in Belarus were watching.“Obviously what’s happening in Belarus is very dear to my heart,” she said. “At this point, what is it going to do? I feel like sport has always been a celebration in our country.”“There was no sport for a really long time,” she added. “Having two Belarusian women playing on the biggest stages, I think it’s really important. I hope people have enjoyed our matches and will continue to watch.” More

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    Serena Williams Is on Another U.S. Open Run. Is a Record Finish in Store?

    Down a set and a break to the unseeded Tsvetana Pironkova in the quarterfinals of the United States Open, Serena Williams was in danger of succumbing to a story line even better than her own.Pironkova is not only unseeded. She is unranked and was playing in her first tour event in more than three years.Not even Williams, a 38-year-old master of the comeback, has taken it to that extreme.Pironkova, 32, is a tall Bulgarian veteran with an iconoclastic game who changes rhythm more often than “Bohemian Rhapsody.” She gave birth to a son, Alexander, in April 2018 and was uncertain whether she wanted to return to the tour at all. She clearly made a sound career move, and on Wednesday was in range, if not quite on the brink, of her biggest victory before Williams came back to prevail, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.“It just shows me how tough moms are,” said Williams, who has a 3-year-old daughter, Olympia. “Whenever you can give birth to a baby, honestly you can do anything. And I think we saw that with Tsvetana today.”But only one working mother could win this match, and after Williams’s strong finish, she will meet another in Thursday’s semifinals, Victoria Azarenka.Williams and Azarenka met in consecutive U.S. Open finals, in 2012 and 2013. Williams prevailed both times in three sets and leads their series, 18-4.Williams and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, once viewed Azarenka, who was ranked No. 1 for most of 2012 and part of 2013, as Williams’s biggest and most talented threat. Azarenka looked ready to climb back to the top when she beat Williams in the final of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in 2016, and then won the Miami Open, completing the so-called Sunshine Double.But Azarenka was soon pregnant and off the tour, and she frequently struggled when she returned in 2017 after getting involved in a long-running custody dispute over her son, Leo, who is now 3.She and Williams, who are friendly, exchanged visits and notes in 2017, shortly after Williams became pregnant and then left the tour herself. “I do hope she is coming back, and we can have some more of our battles,” Azarenka said in an interview that year. “Because she’s one of the people I can’t imagine the tour without.”They have played each other only once since both returned to action, in a high-velocity duel in the second round at Indian Wells last year that Williams won, 7-5, 6-3. Azarenka remains convinced that Williams reserves her best tennis for their matches, but Azarenka has looked closer to her peak at this U.S. Open than Williams has, and she swept past the 16th-seeded Elise Mertens, 6-1, 6-0, on Wednesday night.“Can it get any better? For me, it can’t,” Azarenka said of the upcoming semifinal. “I’m so excited about it. An amazing opportunity to play against a champion, someone I respect a lot who is my friend.”Williams still has a chance to chase her dreams to the end of this U.S. Open, a tournament where the end has been bitter since she won her sixth singles title here way back in 2014.The following year, she was tantalizingly close to a rare calendar-year Grand Slam only to be ambushed in the semifinals by Roberta Vinci, an Italian outsider who, like Pironkova, relied on guile more than pure power.In 2018, Williams lost her cool with the chair umpire Carlos Ramos during a tumultuous defeat against Naomi Osaka in the final. Last year, Williams was again beaten in the final by a prodigiously talented newcomer, the Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu.But to her considerable credit, Williams has continued to rebound from such deflating moments and to fight her way back to form and through major draws. This one has been rather kind so far, with no top 20 opponents: Quite a few of them were missing to begin with in this strange, pandemic-interrupted season. But Williams has still had to struggle, needing three sets to defeat Sloane Stephens, Maria Sakkari and now Pironkova.Such tussles have become the rule. Since the tour restarted last month, eight of Williams’s 10 singles matches have gone the full, three-set distance. She is no longer as intimidating to the opposition or as unusual, with more women accustomed to big-power tennis.But Williams is still here, just two rounds away from matching Margaret Court’s elusive record of 24 major singles titles.“People always say you’re not to do something at a certain age, but with technology and time, we can kind of make that age a little longer,” she said.Williams is 0-4 in Slam finals since returning to the tour in early 2018, several months after childbirth. To get a fifth opportunity, she will need to get past Azarenka. Williams, with her formidable serve clicking and a big head-to-head edge, will be the favorite, but she has not played consistently well enough to be the favorite in the tournament. Osaka, who will face the American newcomer Jennifer Brady in the semifinals, deserves that label as long as her hamstring injury does not resurface.Williams’s victory over Pironkova did not appear to be as draining as some of her previous matches this summer, but it came at a dangerous time. Williams has had a day off between each of her matches at this U.S. Open, but she will not get that luxury for the semifinals.Recovery will be critical. Her U.S. Open loss in 2016 came in a semifinal without a day of rest.At least Williams played the early match on Wednesday, starting slowly as Pironkova sliced forehands, punched flat backhands, hit perfectly disguised lob winners and hustled into the corners to extend rallies and sow seeds of doubt in her more accomplished opponent.“Definitely, I was feeling it a little in my legs,” Williams said. “For whatever reason, an hour in, I get more energy.”But Williams, even without the same range or aura she has had in previous years, remains a supreme competitor and unmatched server. She smacked 20 aces on Wednesday, but she also got gritty and countered Pironkova’s unorthodox methods with some of her own. After getting bamboozled by Pironkova’s hard-to-read serve, Williams was twice forced to return with her non-dominant left hand, and twice won the point.Williams got out of trouble repeatedly with big serves but, as the match progressed, also improved in how she coped with Pironkova’s unusual sliced forehand and low-bouncing shots. Williams needed to win several extended rallies to wrest control of the match, including a 24-shot exchange to break serve to 5-3 in the second set.It was a sotto voce performance by Williams’s operatic standards. She was unusually restrained for much of the match, but she did find a way to tap into her reserves and turn up her inner fire. She is now 44-42 in Grand Slam singles matches when she loses the first set, an extraordinary history that makes her the only woman with more than 25 major matches to have a winning record in such instances.”I’m happy to be standing here talking to you,” she said in an ESPN interview on court after the finish. “Because I think at one point I was pretty close to not being here. I keep fighting, and that’s something I’m super excited about. I never give up, and I have to keep going.”She has told herself that before, in this latest phase of her brilliant career, and then faltered. Another chance looms this year, on a court without fans, a place where her memories are decidedly mixed. More

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    Pironkova Surprises Even Herself in Her Return at the U.S. Open

    Tsvetana Pironkova could see the surprise on the faces of the other players as she entered the locker room at the United States Open after being off the tennis tour for more than three years, since Wimbledon in 2017.With the women’s singles field down to eight players, from 128, the locker room is emptier now. But she is still there, having reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the fourth time in her career.Pironkova, 32, once thought her playing days were behind her after giving birth to a boy, Alexander, in April 2018.“I was feeling pretty comfortable being a full-time mom — a little bit too comfortable, maybe,” Pironkova said in an interview. “I said, OK, I have to take this challenge, to get out of my comfort zone.”Pironkova, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 31 in 2010 and has beaten Venus Williams three times in Grand Slam events, said she missed the physical and mental challenges of tennis.“Sometimes a person just needs to push herself,” she said.Though an individual sport like tennis can require a degree of self-centeredness, Pironkova said she felt better about her career in the context of her new family.“Before I became a mother, I was the baby in the family; my parents, my family, everyone was taking care of me because I am the performer, and I need to feel well to do well,” she said. “I had all the attention. But now it’s different. Now all the attention is with my son, and I kind of find it relieving in some way. I know that whatever happens, I have my family, and that’s the most important thing now.”Pironkova was one of nine mothers in the women’s singles draw this year. Three of them made it to the quarterfinals, which is a first for a Grand Slam tournament, according to the U.S. Open. Pironkova will face another mother, Serena Williams, on Wednesday afternoon, and the winner could face yet another, Victoria Azarenka, in the semifinals.While Williams and Azarenka were considered contenders in New York, Pironkova’s surge was unexpected. Unranked, she was able to enter the main draw using her protected ranking after several players dropped out of the tournament because of the pandemic.She has justified her spot. After beating Liudmila Samsonova, 6-2, 6-3, in the first round, she beat 10th-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza, a two-time Grand Slam champion, in the second round, and 18th-seeded Donna Vekic in the third. In the fourth round, she appeared fatigued after squandering a match point in the second set, but hung on for a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 win over Alizé Cornet.“I’m glad I keep winning,” she said. “I cannot hide it: I’m really proud of what I’m doing.”Pironkova had planned to return to tennis in late March, but was delayed by the pandemic. She has benefited from WTA rules that expanded the number of tournaments a returning mother could play with a protected ranking to 12, up from eight, including two Grand Slam tournaments. The window for a return was also expanded to three years, up from two. The rules were introduced at the end of the 2018 season, after Williams’s high-profile return from maternity leave.“At that time I really didn’t care about that information because I was in a new place in my life,” Pironkova said of the rule changes. “But that was one of the motivations to come back; if I had to start from scratch, I’m not sure I would take that challenge, really. But when you know that you have your old place, it makes all the difference.”Azarenka, who returned to tour in 2017, six months after giving birth to a boy, Leo, also advanced to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal since becoming a mother, having struggled to refind her game and focus amid a custody battle. She said that she would not have done anything different in her return, but that she was happy about the rule changes.“We are more protected and feel more comfortable because it’s such a life-changing experience that you have,” Azarenka said of motherhood. “To find that balance to be able to go out there ready to play, physically be ready, mentally be ready, I think it’s just a better opportunity for players to take that break if they want to, if that’s their choice.”The success is slightly double-edged, however. By winning, Pironkova has been away from her son for more than two weeks.“It’s very hard because up until now it’s the longest I’ve been away from him,” Pironkova said. “I’m used to sleeping with him, to cuddling with him, to waking up with him, to receiving a kiss in the morning. Now all this stuff, I really miss it. But I know it’s for good.”Pironkova’s husband, Mihail Mirchev, has been sending her videos of Alexander watching her matches.“I called my husband after the match,” Pironkova said. “He said Alexander watched the whole match. He didn’t want to go to bed until the match was finished. He was cheering, rooting, screaming and he was superhappy. But it’s true, I really miss him.”After her fourth-round win on Monday over Cornet, Pironkova became emotional when asked by the on-court interviewer, Blair Henley, about being away from her son, whom she felt uncomfortable bringing to New York because of the pandemic.“It’s very tough, and it gets tougher every day,” she said, her eyes welling with tears above her masked face. “But I know he’s watching me. I know he’s proud of me. And it’s worth it.” More

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    Despite Big Hiccups and No Fans, the U.S. Open Has Had Some Classics

    Phase 1 of the weirdest United States Open was full of tennis lessons we never expected we would have to learn.Don’t pull a ball out of your pocket and smack it without looking.Don’t play cards with Benoît Paire.Don’t sign a new protocol and stay in a Long Island hotel. You still might not be allowed to cross a county line to play your match in Queens.Don’t argue line calls on the outside courts. With automated calls, there is no one to argue with.But there was another revelation, too. You don’t need a crowd to have a classic U.S. Open night match.Until now, the players and the spectators seemed to be essential ingredients: feeding off one another, inspiring one another.But Borna Coric and Stefanos Tsitsipas did it on their own in Louis Armstrong Stadium, forging a mutual masterpiece as they exchanged shouts, dirty looks and all manner of shots: bold, subtle, cocksure and humanizingly shaky in the third round.Tsitsipas, a prodigiously talented Greek full of hunger and swagger, seemed to have the match under control at 5-1 in the fourth set and seemed to have it under lock and key serving at 5-4, 40-0. But Coric, who has a tattoo that reads “There is nothing worse in life than being ordinary,” stayed true to his body art.One of the best movers in the men’s game, the young, bristle-haired Croatian kept grinding and swinging. He saved six match points and leveled the match at two sets apiece as Friday night turned into Saturday.Tsitsipas could have been excused for curling up into a ball on the baseline at that stage. But he stayed upright and even went up a break in the fifth set before Coric leveled.Tsitsipas had four more break-point chances down the stretch. But Coric held phenomenally firm and Tsitsipas cracked again, double faulting twice in the fifth-set tiebreaker as Coric prevailed 6-7 (2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4).“I have to be honest, and say I was really lucky,” said Coric, who is now in the quarterfinals. “In the third and fourth set, he was playing unbelievable tennis, and I felt like I had no chance.”It was not the first tennis pandemic epic (a pandepic, perhaps?): Andy Murray and his bionic hip won a five-setter of their own in the first round against Yoshihito Nishioka. Earlier on Friday, Denis Shapovalov came back from a break down in the fifth to defeat Taylor Fritz.Although Novak Djokovic’s fourth-round default was certainly the most dramatic moment of the first week, he and Pablo Carreño Busta did not even finish the first set. For long-form quality, relentless intensity and midnight madness timing, there was no topping Coric and Tsitsipas.“This is probably the saddest and funniest at the same time thing that has ever happened in my career,” tweeted Tsitsipas, in new-generation fashion, just minutes after it happened.It would have been the match of just about any tournament — this one, coronavirus willing, still has matches through Sunday — and that it could happen in a fan-free environment in an individual sport was both reaffirming and unsettling.How much do the roars and the jeers really matter?The thought is, of course, not unique to tennis at the moment. Sport after sport is discovering what it means to play behind closed doors.But there were moments on Friday night when the lack of outside buzz and external distraction actually seemed to elevate the duel, making it possible to hear every sneaker squeak, every grunt and mutter.The court-level camera angles helped, too, bringing viewers into the players’ space and avoiding the wider shots that would have made clear that hardly anyone was watching in person.It was intimate, even meditative at times, as the two rivals took turns being brilliant under pressure to the sounds of the passing trains and a few shouts from their entourages.“Look, it would have been an amazing atmosphere to have fans in there — cheering a guy on as he makes this amazing comeback,” said Brad Gilbert, who called the match for ESPN. “But I do think that the players start getting locked in, and that it’s just about you and the opponent. I don’t think they even were noticing there was no crowd.”Call it their own bubble within a bubble.“You could see everything develop with clarity because you had no distractions,” Gilbert said. “But listen, I’m just so grateful we have a chance to do the tennis and just see the tennis. Obviously, this model without a crowd is not sustainable for the rest of tennis ever, but for the moment, it’s a lot better than no tennis.”The problem in New York during Week 1 was that not everyone who crossed the Atlantic to play tennis was allowed to do so, and that in Djokovic’s case, the biggest star in the men’s game essentially eliminated himself.Staging this tournament at all has been an immense undertaking, and the U.S.T.A. does not have the same financial means as the N.B.A. with its locked-down campus at Walt Disney World in Florida. Nor did it have the wherewithal to quarantine an international field of players for two full weeks before the first ball was struck.There were bound to be issues. For now, Paire is the only player known to have tested positive for the coronavirus in the controlled environment set up for the Western & Southern Open and the U.S. Open. But the devil has been in the details of the contact tracing, which forced seven players who had been in close contact with Paire to sign a new, more restrictive agreement in order to keep playing.When Nassau County health officials learned that those in contact with Paire were being allowed to compete instead of remaining in full quarantine, they effectively voided the new agreement. On Saturday, the French star Kristina Mladenovic, one of those in contact with Paire, was not permitted to travel to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center from the player hotel.She and her Hungarian doubles partner, Timea Babos, the No. 1 seeds, were forced to withdraw before their second-round match, after Adrian Mannarino of France had been allowed to play singles on Friday after great debate. He ended up losing to Alexander Zverev.This moving of the goal posts is not the way this situation should have been handled. Inconsistency undermines the rules, and that Mannarino was allowed to play because he was not at the hotel in Nassau County when the new edict was issued is not a good enough excuse.Every probable scenario should have been talked through and made clear with all the potentially relevant health authorities before the tournament began.Failing to do so undermines the U.S.T.A.’s remarkable efforts and certainly does not play well internationally.“US Open 2020: un tournoi amateur” (an amateur tournament) wrote L’Équipe in a headline over the weekend, bemoaning the lack of consistency and the lack of agreement among health officials within the same state. “The show has sadly moved outside the tennis courts,” L’Équipe wrote. “Even in the midst of a health crisis, that is not worthy of a Grand Slam tournament.”Babos, already back in Europe, echoed those sentiments in an Instagram post on Sunday.“I’m sitting in my kitchen crying,” she said. “It’s terribly unfair. I see no reasonable reason why it had to be like this.”Clearly, watching Mannarino play on Friday, it did not have to be like this. But that does not mean the 2020 U.S. Open, even tarnished and having lost its biggest men’s star, has not had its shining moments.Most of the players seem to appreciate the opportunity (and the paycheck), and they have paid it back with tennis worthy of the occasion, worthy of a Grand Slam tournament.Coric versus Tsitsipas was only the best of many examples: a late-night classic no doubt, even without the customary soundtrack. More