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Australian Open champ Osaka is Asia’s 1st No. 1 in tennis

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Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka is the first player from Asia to top the men’s or women’s tennis rankings — and the youngest woman to make her debut at No. 1 in nine years.

“I feel like I’m literally just still learning,” the 21-year-old Osaka said. “Everyone kind of adjusts to being No. 1 in a different way.”

Simona Halep’s 48-week stay atop the WTA rankings ended Monday as she slid to No. 3 after a fourth-round loss to Serena Williams, one year after getting to the final at Melbourne Park.

“The main goal is just to play as good as I can every match, to win every match I play, so the ranking doesn’t really matter,” Halep said.

Halep said the year-end ranking is what is “more important” than where things stand now, “so I will not stress myself about this.”

Osaka’s second consecutive major title, following her success at the U.S. Open last year, helped her rise three spots.

She was born in Japan — her mother is Japanese, her father is Haitian — and moved to the United States when she was 3. She has dual citizenship and now is based in Florida.

Osaka is the youngest woman to reach the top since 2010, when Caroline Wozniacki did it at 20.

AP Photo / Aaron Favila

“People were talking about (me) being No. 1 if I win this tournament. I was able to accomplish that,” Osaka said. “But the ranking was never my real goal. It was just to win this tournament.”

The runner-up at Melbourne Park, Petra Kvitova, jumped from No. 6 to No. 2.

Sloane Stephens is No. 4, and Karolina Pliskova went from No. 8 to No. 5.

Williams missed the 2018 tournament after having a baby; her quarterfinal run this time pushed her up five places to No. 11.

Surprise semifinalist Danielle Collins, a 25-year-old from Florida, climbed from No. 35 to No. 23. The woman she upset in the fourth round, three-time major champion Angelique Kerber, dropped from No. 2 to No. 6.

Novak Djokovic’s record seventh Australian Open title allowed him to stay at No. 1 in the ATP rankings, and Rafael Nadal’s runner-up showing kept him at No. 2.

But 2017-18 champion Roger Federer’s fourth-round exit took him from No. 3 down to No. 6.

The player who beat Federer, 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, turned his first run to a Grand Slam semifinal into a career-best ranking of No. 12.

 

Tennis

WATCH: Naomi Osaka Announces Split From Coach, Now She’s Facing First Loss Since Earning No. 1

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Naomi Osaka lost her first match since moving up to No. 1 in the WTA rankings — and first since splitting from her coach.

The two-time major champion had trouble with her serve and was beaten 6-3, 6-3 by 67th-ranked Kristina Mladenovic at the Dubai Championships in a little more than an hour on Tuesday.

Afterward, Osaka wiped away tears while speaking to reporters and discussing the difficulty of dealing with her new-found spot atop the sport.

“I don’t think I necessarily understand what position I’m in, in a way. Because last year, I wasn’t even anywhere close to this ranking. People didn’t pay attention to me — and that’s something that I’m comfortable with,” Osaka said.

“I don’t really like attention,” she said. “It’s been a little tough.”

Playing a second-round match after an opening bye as the tournament’s top seed, Osaka won only 5 of 27 second-serve points, just 19 percent, and barely half of her first-serve points, 12 of 22.

She was broken seven of the nine times she served.

Mladenovic came into the Dubai Championships with a record of 0-4 in 2019.

Osaka had not competed since winning the Australian Open in January for her second consecutive Grand Slam title, a victory that also allowed her to become the first tennis player from Asia to lead the rankings.

Last week, Osaka announced on Twitter that she would no longer work with coach Sascha Bajin, who began coaching her before last season and helped her win the U.S. Open in September.

Osaka didn’t offer an explanation for the split at the time, but addressed it during a media availability before the Dubai tournament, saying: “Everyone thinks it was a money-related issue, but it wasn’t. … I think my reason is I wouldn’t put success over my happiness.”

In other action Tuesday at the hard-court tournament, second-seeded Petra Kvitova — the runner-up to Osaka at the Australian Open — beat Katerina Siniakova 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-4; third-seeded Simona Halep — Osaka’s predecessor at No. 1 — defeated Eugenie Bouchard 7-6 (5), 6-4; and No. 4 seed Karolina Pliskova edged Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

No. 7 seed Kiki Bertens lost to Viktoria Kuzmova 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (6), while No. 11 Daria Kasatkina was eliminated by 20-year-old American Sofia Kenin 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.

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1 point away, Serena stunned by Pliskova at Australian Open

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Four times, Serena Williams was only one point — a single point — from closing out a victory in the Australian Open quarterfinals.

On the first such chance, at 5-1, 40-30 in the third set, she turned her left ankle awkwardly. The owner of the best serve in the sport would lose every point she served the rest of the way.

And so it was that a startling reversal and result would follow Wednesday at Melbourne Park, with Williams dropping the last six games of a 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 loss to No. 7-seeded Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic.

“I can’t say that I choked on those match points,” Williams said. “She literally played her best tennis ever on those shots.”

The 37-year-old American didn’t call for a trainer during the match and later wouldn’t blame the ankle for the way everything changed down the stretch, saying afterward that it “seems to be fine.”

But instead of Williams moving closer to an eighth championship at the Australian Open and record-tying 24th Grand Slam title overall, it is Pliskova who will continue the pursuit of her first major trophy.

“I was almost in the locker room,” Pliskova told the Rod Laver Arena crowd, “but now I’m standing here as the winner.”

Normally, Williams is the one manufacturing a comeback. This time, it was surprising to see her let a sizable lead vanish. Only twice before in 380 Grand Slam matches had Williams lost after holding a match point, at the 2010 French Open and 1999 Australian Open.

AP Photo / Kin Cheung

In Thursday’s semifinals, Pliskova will face No. 4-seeded Naomi Osaka, who advanced by beating No. 6 Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-1. The other women’s semifinal will be two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova against unseeded American Danielle Collins.

In men’s action Wednesday, No. 28 Lucas Pouille of France reached his first Grand Slam semifinal by beating 2016 Wimbledon runner-up Milos Raonic of Canada 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-4. Pouille, who is coached by two-time major champion Amelie Mauresmo, had been 0-5 for his career at the Australian Open until last week. His next opponent will be 14-time major champion Novak Djokovic, who moved on when 2014 U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori stopped playing while trailing 6-1, 4-1.

Nishikori was treated for leg problems by a trainer.

Williams’ surprising departure scuttled what would have been a much-anticipated rematch against Osaka, who beat her in the chaotic U.S. Open final last September.

This defeat is the earliest in Australia for Williams since 2014, when she exited with a fourth-round loss to Ana Ivanovic. Since then? She won the tournament in 2015, lost in the final in 2016, and won again in 2017 while pregnant, before missing last year’s edition a few months after the birth of her daughter.

As for chasing Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 24 Slam trophies in singles, Williams said: “It hasn’t happened yet, but I feel like it’s going to happen.”

The match against Pliskova was played under a stifling sun, with the temperature around 80 degrees (25 degrees Celsius). Williams — coming off an intense three-set victory over No. 1 Simona Halep in the fourth round — often stepped into the patches of shade behind each baseline.

She did not start well, not well at all. Her mistakes were mounting and deficit was growing.

In the first set alone, Williams made more than twice as many unforced errors as her opponent, 11-5, a pattern that would continue throughout. By the end, the margin was 37-15.

Looking increasingly frustrated, Williams would yell at herself after mistakes or gesture as if to say, “That’s NOT how I should be hitting the ball!” Add it all up, and Pliskova led by a set and a break at 3-2 in the second.

Only then did Williams get going. From there, she immediately earned her first break point of the match and converted it to get to 3-all, beginning a run in which she claimed nine of 11 games.

“You don’t really feel,” Pliskova said, “like you’re going to win this match.”

Serving for the victory at 5-1, 40-30, Williams was called for a foot fault — reminiscent of an infamous such ruling at the U.S. Open a decade ago. During the ensuing point Wednesday, Williams twisted her left ankle and dumped a forehand into the net.

AP Photo / Andy Brownbill)

She grabbed at her foot afterward, then double-faulted and would go on to cede that game.

Not a big deal, right? She still had a sizable lead.

Except that three more match points would follow while Pliskova served, and she saved each one.

“There’s nothing I did wrong on those match points. I didn’t do anything wrong. I stayed aggressive,” Williams said. “She just literally hit the lines on some of them.”

Williams would again serve for the match at 5-3 — and again get broken. The owner of the most feared and respected serve in women’s tennis was broken for a third time in a row at 5-all, and Pliskova was on her way.

“She got a little bit shaky in the end,” Pliskova said. “So I took my chances. And I won.”

Osaka will carry a 12-match Grand Slam winning streak into the semifinals.

The 21-year-old from Japan moved closer to a second consecutive major championship by parlaying her aggressive and powerful style into a 31-11 edge in winners against Svitolina.

“For me, right now, I just try to keep looking forward. So I’m not really satisfied. Like, I am happy that I’m here, but at the same time, I want to keep going,” said Osaka, who never had been past the fourth round at the Australian Open. “There is more matches to win.”

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Tsitsipas Becomes The Youngest Grand Slam Semifinalist Since 2007, Then Plugs YouTube Channel

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A post-millennial through and through, Stefanos Tsitsipas sounded as excited about doubling his YouTube channel’s followers to more than 30,000 within a few hours — “Oh, my God. Really?!” — as he was about becoming the youngest Grand Slam semifinalist since 2007.

Ah, to be 20, emerging as possibly the Next Big Thing in tennis and getting the opportunity to promote your travel vlogs.

“Guys,” he urged folks watching the Australian Open on Tuesday in person or on TV, “if you haven’t subscribed, please subscribe.”

Lest anyone get the idea that Tsitsipas’ stunning victory over Roger Federer at Melbourne Park was a fluke, he followed it up by beating No. 22-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2) to become the first player from Greece to reach the final four at a major tournament.

“I knew that win against Federer was important, played a huge role in my image — like, who I am,” said Tsitsipas, who eliminated the two-time defending champion in the fourth round Sunday. “But I knew that the biggest challenge was today’s match, that I can prove myself once again.”

Sure did.

AP Photo / Aaron Favila

Next for Tsitsipas will be 17-time major champion Rafael Nadal, who stopped the career-best run of another up-and-coming member of the sport’s new generation, 21-year-old American Frances Tiafoe, by dominating him 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Nadal saved the only two break points he faced and broke Tiafoe the first time he served in each set.

In women’s action, unseeded 25-year-old Danielle Collins of the U.S. reached her first Slam semifinal with a 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 victory against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia. Collins was an NCAA champion at the University of Virginia who began this tournament with an 0-5 record at majors and now has strung together five victories in a row, including over 2016 champion Angelique Kerber.

Collins put aside a poor start Tuesday, including dropping a 16-minute, 28-point, 11-deuce second game to completely dominate the final set, which she opened by grabbing 20 of 23 points.

She’ll now face two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who is back in the semis at a major for the first time since she was stabbed during an attack at her home in December 2016.

AP Photo / Mark Schiefelbein

“I didn’t really imagine being back,” a teary Kvitova said after defeating No. 15 Ash Barty of Australia 6-1, 6-4.

“I’m calling it my ‘second career,‘” Kvitova said. “So it’s the first semifinal of the ‘second career.’”

She hadn’t been this far at any Slam since Wimbledon in 2014, and at Melbourne since 2012.

Cheered on by a loud, flag-waving contingent of Greek fans inside and outside Rod Laver Arena, Tsitsipas displayed his varied toolbox, producing 22 aces, 30 more winners than unforced errors (68-38) and a nose for getting to the net.

AP Photo / Mark Schiefelbein

It was a terrific encore to what he did against his idol, the 37-year-old Federer, a result that left Tsitsipas unable to sleep.

Tsitsipas was down a break in the first and third sets before turning both around against Bautista Agut, whose own thrill-ride to the quarterfinals included victories over Andy Murray, a three-time major champion, and Marin Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open champion and the runner-up to Federer at Melbourne Park a year ago.

“Well, he’s a good player, no? He’s very complete. He has a good forehand and backhand. He’s serving well,” Bautista Agut said about Tsitsipas. “I think he knows the game. He knows how to play.”

That’s why his peers voted him the 2018 Most Improved Player.

And why he’s already in the Top 20, seeded 14th in Australia.

Tsitsipas recently was asked what his goal was for this season. The reply: reaching the semifinals at a major. Well, we’re all of three weeks into 2019 and that box is checked.

So is he satisfied?

AP Photo / Andy Brownbill

“That’s like the starting point to go deeper,” Tsitsipas replied. “That’s like the minimum, I would call it.”

No man as young as Tsitsipas had been this far at any Grand Slam tournament since Novak Djokovic at the 2007 U.S. Open or at the Australian Open since Andy Roddick in 2003.

“It all feels like a fairy tale, almost. I’m just living the dream, living what I’ve been working hard for,” said Tsitsipas, who dropped his racket, fell on his back and covered his face with his hands at match’s end. “I mean, I feel a bit emotional but not too much because I know I worked hard to get here.”

Seated in his courtside guest box were his parents — his father is his coach; his mother was a tennis player in the Soviet Union — and two siblings, along with Patrick Mouratoglou, who coaches Serena Williams and serves as a mentor to Tsitsipas.

Before introducing them, and other members of his entourage, to the audience during his post-match interview, Tsitsipas discussed his love of “cinematography, filmmaking, photography” and the way the YouTube videos he began making last year serve as a creative outlet.

Later, at his news conference, Tsitsipas expanded on what he gains from his hobby.

“When I’m desperate sometimes, when I feel down, I do these videos. I actually feel better,” he said. “It makes me realize that tennis is not the most important thing in life, that we all have some other talents that we don’t know about. It kind of makes me more relaxed.”

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