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Novak Djokovic opens clay-court season with upset loss to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina at Monte Carlo Masters

Novak Djokovic opened his clay-court season with a surprising loss to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina at the Monte Carlo Masters on Tuesday.

Davidovich Fokina stunned the top-ranked Serb 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-1 in the second round to hand Djokovic another setback as he tries to move on from the controversy surrounding his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

It makes for rare back-to-back losses for Djokovic, who had not played since being eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Dubai Tennis Championships in February — his only previous tournament this year after he was barred from playing at the Australian Open.

Djokovic struggled from the start as the 46th-ranked Spaniard broke him early to pull ahead 4-1 before another break handed him the first set.

Davidovich Fokina kept up the pressure and led 3-0 in the second before Djokovic clawed back. But the Serb continued to struggle on his serve and was broken three times in the decider. “He was the better player,” Djokovic said. “I was hanging on the ropes the entire match.”

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The Serb stated he was too exhausted to put up a fight in the third set.

“I collapsed,” Djokovic said. “I just ran out of gas completely … If you can’t stay in the rally, not feeling your legs on the clay, it’s mission impossible.”

Djokovic had defeated Davidovich Fokina, 22, in consecutive sets twice last year, in Rome and at the Tokyo Olympics.

Djokovic could not defend his Australian Open title in January after he was deported from the country for not being vaccinated. He had to skip tournaments in Indian Wells, California, and Miami because he couldn’t travel to the United States for the same reason.

The authorities in France and Monaco lifted most COVID-19 restrictions last month, allowing people who aren’t vaccinated into the country and back into restaurants, sports arenas and other venues.

That means Djokovic will be able to play at the French Open, which remains his “big goal of the clay season.”

“I knew that it’s going to take some time for me to really feel my best on the clay,” Djokovic said. “I have to accept defeat and keep working … and hopefully build my form for Roland Garros.”

The French Open starts on May 22 in Paris.

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Naomi Osaka cruises past Astra Sharma in first round of Miami Open

Naomi Osaka was greeted by some cheers when she walked onto the court, then got significantly louder ones when her work for the day was done.

Maybe the comforts of home helped.

Flashing the level of play that vaulted her to No. 1 in the world not too long ago, Osaka had little trouble in defeating Astra Sharma of Australia 6-3, 6-4 on Wednesday — the first full day of play at the Miami Open.

Osaka is Japanese-born, calls California home now, but spent much of her youth in South Florida, basically just a few miles north of where the Miami Open is now held.

“I kind of consider this like my home tournament,” Osaka said, before her words got drowned out by more cheers and applause from fans. “This is the tournament that I loved coming to once a year. I’m just really happy to be back out here.”

It was Osaka’s first match since a March 12 loss at Indian Wells, when she was rattled by a derogatory shout from a spectator. If any similar thoughts were expressed by the fans who were watching Wednesday in a largely empty stadium court built over the field where the NFL’s Miami Dolphins play football, they either were ignored or unnoticed.

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“Honestly, for me, I just didn’t want to let anything bother me today no matter what happened,” Osaka said. “The last match that I played was not the greatest memory for me.”

That’s when someone decided to yell from the stands: “We love you.”

Osaka surely appreciated that sentiment.

She revealed Wednesday that she started seeing a therapist after Indian Wells

“it only took like a year after French Open,” she quipped, referring to how she missed the clay-court Grand Slam event to focus on her mental health last year — and that she was bracing to hear heckling.

“I’m glad that I have people around me that told me to go in that direction,” Osaka said. “I was basically just remembering all the things that she told me to do, just to take deep breaths and reset myself when I need to.”

Osaka will face No. 13 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany — like Osaka, another former world No. 1 — in the second round Thursday. Kerber, like all 32 seeds in the 96-player singles field, had a bye out of the first round. Kerber is 4-1 head-to-head versus Osaka.

Osaka improved to 7-2 this year, not counting a walkover loss at Melbourne in early January when she withdrew from an Australian Open warmup event with an abdominal injury.

She’s ranked No. 77 in the world largely because she hasn’t entered many events in the last year, though among active players — if Ashleigh Barty is no longer considered one after her surprising retirement announcement — Osaka is the most recent to hold the No. 1 ranking. Barty supplanted her in the top spot on Sept. 9, 2019, and has held that ranking since.

Osaka has openly talked about struggling with depression and working on her mental health since winning the 2018 US Open over Serena Williams. She withdrew from last year’s French Open, left last year’s US Open in tears and was brought to tears again by the comment from a spectator at Indian Wells earlier this month.

“I just wanted to prove that I could come back out here and compete,” Osaka said.

Also Wednesday, 2018 Miami champion Sloane Stephens earned a second-round matchup versus fellow American Jessica Pegula by topping Hungary’s Panna Udvardy 6-4, 6-3. And Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania topped Hailey Baptiste of the U.S. 6-7 (6), 6-1, 6-1 to move into a second-round matchup versus women’s No. 1 seed Aryna Sabalenka.

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Taylor Fritz ends Rafael Nadal’s 20-match win streak with win at Indian Wells

Hours from playing in the biggest final of his young career, Taylor Fritz was in severe pain. The prospect of having to withdraw versus Rafael Nadal nearly had him in tears.

His coach urged him not to risk potentially damaging his sore ankle further. Fritz stubbornly refused to bow out.

His faith in himself paid off. Fritz upset Nadal 6-3, 7-6 (5) Sunday to win the BNP Paribas Open and snap the 21-time major champion’s 20-match winning streak this year.

“It was a complete nonissue, didn’t feel it at all, didn’t hinder me at all,” said Fritz, who tweaked his ankle late in his semifinal victory over No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev.

Blue medical tape could be seen above his high sock and he had it numbed before the final. Nadal had his own health issue. He came into the match bothered by painful breathing that he first experienced in a three-set semifinal win.

He took two medical timeouts during the final. The first one came after he lost the first set. Nadal went inside with a trainer after tapping his upper left chest. He received treatment on court after falling behind 5-4 in the second set.

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“When I try to breathe, it’s painful and it’s very uncomfortable. It’s like a needle all the time inside. I get dizzy a little bit because it’s painful. It’s a kind of pain that limit me a lot,” said Nadal, who turns 36 in June.

“The thing that worries me now, it’s about what’s going on there, what I have to do now to recover and how long it’s going to take.”

Nadal’s 20-0 start to the year included the Australian Open, his 21st major championship that broke a tie with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. He also won titles in Melbourne and Acapulco.

“Of course, the last two months have been amazing, unforgettable, very emotional,” Nadal said. “I enjoy things that I never thought I could live again a few months ago.”

Fritz didn’t waste any time in attacking Nadal, racing to a 5-1 lead in the first set with two breaks. Nadal got a break back in closing to 5-3, but his backhand error gave Fritz another break and the set.

“It’s an honor to even be on the same court as this guy,” Fritz told the crowd. “I grew up watching this guy win everything.”

Nadal fought off a match point on his serve with a forehand winner to tie the second set 5-all. He had two break points on Fritz’s serve in the next game, but the American held for a 6-5 lead. Nadal held to force the tiebreaker.

Nadal sent two straight forehands well wide to set up Fritz’s second match point.

Another Nadal error sent Fritz to the biggest victory of his career not far from where he grew up near San Diego. Fritz’s parents, Guy Fritz and Kathy May, are former tour players.

“He told me that I was going to win this tournament one day when I was a little kid,” Fritz said. “It was pretty tough not being emotional with my parents, especially my dad. He was just really, really proud of me. It’s really tough to get a compliment out of him.”

Fritz dropped his racket and collapsed on his back after clinching the title on his second match point. He got up smiling with a look of disbelief on his face. He became the first American man to win Indian Wells since Andre Agassi in 2001.

“I just kept telling myself there’s no reason why I can’t win this,” Fritz said.

Fritz is projected to rise from No. 20 to a career-high 13th in Monday’s ATP Tour rankings and will become the top-ranked American player. Nadal moves up to No. 3.

Nadal had already decided to skip next week’s tournament in Miami and head home to Spain to prepare for the French Open, which starts May 22.

Fritz is scheduled for a MRI on his ankle Monday and isn’t sure whether he’ll be able to play in Miami.

The Miami Open started on Monday. Daniil Medvedev is among the notables who are playing on the men’s side, as well as Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini. Hubert Hurkacz won the event last year.

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Naomi Osaka rallies past Sloane Stephens in return at Indian Wells

Naomi Osaka made a winning return to the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday, rallying to defeat Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 in a first-round meeting of former major champions.

Trailing 2-0 in the third set, Osaka fought off three break points to hold and begin a run of six consecutive games to close out the match in just under two hours. She broke Stephens three times in the set, including at love in the sixth game.

“That was a really good test for me,” Osaka said.

Cold winds blowing from 20 to 30 mph sent debris swirling around the court.

“I felt like I was fighting for my life. I was fighting against her, I was fighting against the wind. It was crazy,” Osaka said.

“I’m really proud with how I handled it.” Osaka, the 2018 winner at Indian Wells, is back in the desert for the first time since 2019. The Japanese star hadn’t played a tournament since January when she lost in the round of 32 at the Australian Open.

Having played only a handful of events last year, her ranking has dropped to 78th in the world.

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“I keep taking these long breaks,” she said. “I do need to play a lot more matches and I do need to give myself the opportunity to get more into the swing of things.”

Osaka has stated she has faced bouts of depression since winning the US Open in 2018.

The four-time major champion withdrew from the French Open last year to preserve her mental health.

Stephens, the 2017 US Open winner, lost for the first time in three career meetings with Osaka. The American’s ranking has dropped to 38th, although she was coming off a win in the tournament at Guadalajara, Mexico, last month.

Other first-round winners were Yulia Putintseva, Daria Saville and Tereza Martincova. Shelby Rogers, an Indian Wells quarterfinalist last year, needed nearly three hours to get by Nuria Parrizas Diaz 6-1, 5-7, 7-6 (3).

In men’s first-round matches, Americans Mackenzie McDonald, Jenson Brooksby, Jack Sock and J.J. Wolf all won.

Christopher Eubanks saved three match points in outlasting Maxime Cressy 5-7, 7-6 (8), 6-4 in an all-American matchup. Nick Kyrgios, who received a wild card, beat Sebastian Baez 6-4, 6-0.

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Top-ranked Ash Barty pulls out of Indian Wells, Miami Open tennis tournaments

Ashleigh Barty, the world’s top-ranked women’s tennis player, pulled out of Indian Wells and the Miami Open on Thursday, citing a need for ongoing recovery after winning the Australian Open.

Indian Wells starts next week, and had she played it would have been Barty’s first appearance there since 2019. The Miami Open, where Barty is the two-time defending champion, begins March 21.

“Unfortunately, my body has not recovered the way I’d hoped after the Australian Open and I have not been able to adequately prepare for Indian Wells and Miami,” Barty said. “I don’t believe I am at the level necessary to win these events and as a result I have decided to withdraw from both tournaments.

“I love these events and am sad not to be there competing but getting my body right must be my focus.”

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Barty’s withdrawal means that Indian Wells will be without both finalists from January’s Australian Open. 

Danielle Collins, the top-ranked American in the women’s rankings at No. 11, cited ongoing injuries in her decision to not play there.

Miami Open tournament director James Blake stated he hopes Barty can make a quick return.

“I know this was an extremely difficult decision for Ashleigh and understand the importance for players to prioritize their health,” Blake said.

Barty ended a 44-year drought for Australian women at the Australian Open when she won the singles title at Melbourne Park in late January. It was her third Grand Slam singles title and her first on hard courts after her victories on grass at Wimbledon and on clay at the French Open.

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Novak Djokovic on entry list for BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament at Indian Wells

Top-ranked Novak Djokovic is on the entry list for the BNP Paribas Open in California, where the Serb would face a vaccine mandate.

Djokovic, who was unvaccinated against COVID-19 as of last month, was detained and eventually deported from Australia for failing to meet that country’s strict vaccination requirements. It prevented him from defending his Australian Open title last month.

To enter Australia, Djokovic submitted a positive test issued in Serbia on Dec. 16 for a visa exemption on the grounds that he had recently recovered from the virus. But the Australian government canceled his visa and deported him.

Neither the ATP nor WTA tours require players to be vaccinated against COVID-19. However, non-U.S. citizens must be fully vaccinated to travel to the U.S. by plane, according to the CDC. U.S. citizens, permanent residents and those traveling on an immigration visa, if not fully vaccinated, are required to show a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 when traveling to the U.S. by air. Limited exceptions apply.

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Djokovic is a five-time champion at Indian Wells, where he hasn’t played since 2019. He hasn’t played a game since November at the Davis Cup in Madrid.

Djokovic is calendared to play a tournament in Dubai later this month.

Fans attending Indian Wells from March 7-20 are required to show valid proof of full vaccination.

Australian Open winners Rafael Nadal and Ash Barty head the list of entries released Wednesday.

Three-time winner Nadal returns to the desert for the first time since 2019. He missed last year’s event that was moved to October because of a foot injury. He won his record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title in Australia.

Joining Nadal in the men’s draw are Australian Open finalist Daniil Medvedev, No. 3 Alexander Zverev, No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas, and defending champion Cameron Norrie.

Top-ranked Barty already has two titles this year.

She’s joined in the women’s draw by defending champion Paula Badosa, No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, 2021 French Open winner Barbora Krejcikova, No. 4 Karolina Pliskova and Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins. Teenagers Leylah Fernandez, Emma Raducanu and Coco Gauff return for their second appearances in the desert.

The remaining spots in the draw will be filled by winners of the qualifying and wild-card recipients.

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Daniil Medvedev reaches round of 16; Karolina Pliskova upset in 2 sets on windy day at Indian Wells

Top-seeded Daniil Medvedev defeated Filip Krajinovic 6-2, 7-6 (1) to reach the round of 16 on a gusty Monday night at the BNP Paribas Open. Karolina Pliskova, the women’s top seed, was upset by Beatriz Haddad Maia 6-3, 7-5.

Medvedev, the US Open champion, connected on 70% of his first serves and fired four aces despite challenging weather conditions.

Haddad Maia got into the main draw as a lucky loser. She lost in the final round of qualifying and got in when No. 29 seed Nadia Podoroska withdrew with a thigh injury. Haddad Maia inherited Podoroska’s first-round bye and then beat Mayar Sherif in the second round.

Ranked 115th, the Brazilian reached the round of 16 at a WTA 1000 event for the first time.

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On a windy day at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Pliskova held serve to tie the second set 5-5, but she got broken eight times in the match.

Haddad Maia held and then broke Pliskova in the final game to wrap up her second career win over a Top-5 player.

No. 15 Coco Gauff lost to 21st-seeded Paula Badosa 6-2, 6-2 in a match that was briefly suspended by rain on a night of wild weather in the desert.

No. 10 Angelique Kerber defeated 20th-seeded Daria Kasatkina 6-2, 1-6, 6-4. No. 12 Ons Jabeur defeat Danielle Collins 6-1, 6-3 for her Tour-leading 46th match win of the year.

No. 16 seed Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 champion, lost to 18th-seeded Anett Kontaveit 7-6 (5), 6-3.

On the men’s side, No. 6 Casper Ruud outlasted Lloyd Harris 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4. No. 8 Hubert Hurkacz and 10th-seeded Diego Schwartzman advanced. No. 16 Reilly Opelka lost to 23rd-ranked Grigor Dimitrov 6-3, 6-4.

No. 9 Denis Shapovalov was beaten by 19th-seeded Aslan Karatsev 7-5, 6-2.

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Sloane Stephens survives to oust Heather Watson in 3 sets at Indian Wells

Sloane Stephens outlasted Heather Watson 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-1 on Wednesday in her opening match at the BNP Paribas Open.

Stephens gained seven of 18 break points. She raced to a 5-0 lead in the third set before Watson held, then served out the win. Watson had seven aces and seven double faults on the hard courts at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Stephens advanced to a second-round match versus fellow American Jessica Pegula. American Shelby Rogers, who upset top-ranked Ash Barty in the third round of the U.S. Open, was set to play Anhelina Kalinina of Ukraine in a night match.

Americans Madison Brengle, Madison Keys and qualifier Alycia Parks also played later.

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Men’s main draw play starts Thursday.

Three-time major champion Andy Murray and four-time major champion Kim Clijsters received wild cards into the event. U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu and runner-up Leylah Fernandez are entered.

Electronic Hawkeye cameras, previously in use at the tournament, will handle line calls for every match. Chair umpires and ball kids will be on hand.

The combined ATP and WTA tournament is missing some of the sport’s biggest names, including men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic and Barty. Also out on men’s side are Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

The women’s draw is missing Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. Second-ranked Aryna Sabalenka stated she tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in the desert and is in isolation.

The tournament was moved from its usual March date because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Novak Djokovic pulls out of BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells

Top-ranked Novak Djokovic is the latest big-name tennis player to drop out of the BNP Paribas Open set for next month in the Southern California desert.

“I am sorry I won’t get to see my fans in Indian Wells and play in the desert, my favorite place to go,” he tweeted Wednesday.

Djokovic came up one triumph short of claiming all four Grand Slam titles this year, losing in the US Open final earlier this month. He acquired the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon titles.

Djokovic joins women’s No. 1 Ash Barty in skipping the tournament featuring the combined men’s and women’s tours. It will be played Oct. 4-17, a switch from its usual March date on the calendar because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Emma Raducanu, the surprise U.S. Open women’s winner, received a wild card into the event.

Also in the women’s field are teenagers Leylah Fernandez, the US Open runner-up, and Coco Gauff.

Also out of the event are former winners Naomi Osaka and Roger Federer, who is recovering from knee surgery in August.

His withdrawal means there will definitely be a first-time winner on the men’s side in this year’s BNP Paribas Open. Along with Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, the only other active players to have won in Indian Wells are Juan Martin del Potro and defending champion Dominic Thiem, both of whom are not in the field due to injuries. 

Without Djokovic, Russian Daniil Medvedev, the second-ranked player in the world, is expected to be the top seed at Indian Wells. Alexander Zverev of Germany, who collected the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, will also be among the favorites.

The two of them, along with third-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas and fifth-ranked Andrey Rublev round out the likely top four seeds in the men’s draw.

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