Djokovic reaches final despite 'physical crisis'

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Djokovic reaches final despite 'physical crisis'

From Comcast SportsNetMELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Novak Djokovic overcame his breathing problems and a "physical crisis" to beat Andy Murray in an almost five-hour Australian Open semifinal Friday night and move into his third straight Grand Slam final. Standing between Djokovic and a record shared by some of the greatest players of all time will be No. 2-ranked Rafael Nadal, a man he beat in six tournament finals in 2011. Despite appearing tired and sore from the second set, defending Djokovic rallied to beat fourth-seeded Murray 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 7-5 in a rematch of the 2011 final at Melbourne Park. After wasting a chance to serve out the match at 5-3 in the fifth and letting Murray back into the contest, Djokovic cashed in his first match point when the Scottish player missed a forehand after four hours, 50 minutes. "You have to find strength in those moments and energy, and that keeps you going," Djokovic said. "I think we both went through a physical crisis. You know, him at the fourth set, me all the way through the second and midway through the third. It was a very even match throughout, from the first to the last point." Djokovic dropped onto his back, fully laid out on the court. He got up and shook hands with Murray, before jogging back out onto the court like a boxer, dropping to his knees and crossing himself. It was already after 12:30 a.m. Saturday when he got up again and pumped his arms triumphantly. "Andy deserves the credit to come back from 2-5 down. He was fighting. I was fighting," Djokovic said. "Not many words that can describe the feeling of the match. "Evidently it was a physical match ... it was one of the best matches I played. Emotionally and mentally it was equally hard." It was a bitter setback for Murray, who lost the previous two Australian finals and is still trying to end a drought for British men at majors dating back to 1936. He is confident he has already improved in the few weeks since hiring eight-time major winner Ivan Lendl as coach. "Yeah, it was tough at the end 'cause, you know, obviously you come back, then you get close to breaking," he said. "To lose, yeah, it's tough. "But a different player, a different attitude to this time last year. I'm proud of the way I fought." Djokovic finished last year at No. 1 after winning three of the four majors, including a straight-sets win over Murray in the Australian final. His only loss at a Grand Slam in 2011 was against Roger Federer in the French Open semifinals. It was phenomenal season after previously only winning one major -- the 2008 Australian Open -- and not returning to a final for 11 Grand Slams. "To be honest, I think I matured as a player. I started to believe on the court I could win majors," he said. "Rafa and Roger are the most dominant players for the last seven, eight years. ... It was very hard to take away the titles from them. They will not give you the titles. You have to earn it." He is now aiming to be only the fifth man in the Open Era started in 1968 to win three straight majors -- only Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Federer and Nadal have achieved it before him, with only Laver going on to complete the Grand Slam by winning all four majors in a season. The Australian great was in the arena named in his honor to watch Friday night's semifinal, as he had been when 2009 Australian Open winner Nadal came back from a set and a break down to beat four-time champion Federer in four sets the previous night. Djokovic's 70-6 win-loss record in 2011 included those six wins over Nadal in finals -- including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Nadal has had an extra day to prepare for the final, but will be conscious of his own performance three years ago when he beat Fernando Verdasco in a 5-hour, 14-minute semifinal and had 24 hours less to prepare for a final against Federer that he eventually won. On Friday night, both Djokovic and Murray had form dips -- but Djokovic's were more obvious. He led by a set and a break before Murray started coming back at him. Then Djokovic started walking gingerly and appeared to be struggling for breath -- just as he had been in his straights sets quarterfinal win over No. 5-ranked David Ferrer. At one point, he pointed to his nose and seemed to indicated to his support group that he was having trouble breathing. He stayed in the points, despite Murray scrambling and trying to get him involved in long rallies. "You try to get energized in every way," he said. "A lot of liquids, try to eat something, as well, that gives you energy." He put his breathing problems down to allergies, and said he'd seen a doctor for it. After winning a tight tiebreaker but then virtually conceding the fourth set, Murray rallied again after slipping behind 5-2 in the fifth. He broke Djokovic at love when the Serb was serving for the match on a three-game streak that put all the pressure back on the defending champion. But Djokovic composed himself and seemed to be gathering energy as the match wore on. He held serve and then broke Murray to finish it off. "I'm extremely delighted to be in the final," Djokovic said. "What can be a bigger challenge than playing against Rafa Nadal, one of the greatest players ever. "I'm going to try to recover. Obviously it's going to be physical as well." Despite being friends and childhood rivals, this was only the second meeting between Djokovic and Murray at a Grand Slam. Djokovic beat Murray in the 2011 Australian final and had a 6-4 lead in their overall head-to-heads at tour level. Murray won the Brisbane International and came into the semifinal on a 10-match winning streak. The blue-and-white crossed Scottish flags fluttered in the crowd, held by fans with the flag painted on their faces and some wearing their tartan Tam hats. The support was evenly split at Rod Laver Arena, encouraging both players in the tense final set. The Maria Sharapova vs. Victoria Azarenka women's final on Saturday night is being previewed in the local media as a battle of the two loudest grunters on the tour. Azarenka, who won the Sydney International title the weekend before the season's first major, is bidding to continue her winning shriek. Sharapova has won three majors, but none since the 2008 Australian Open. Azarenka will be playing her first Grand Slam final. The winner will move to the top of the women's rankings. Caroline Wozniacki, who came into the tournament as No. 1, will drop three places after her quarterfinal loss to 2011 champion Kim Clijsters. Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva won the women's doubles final on Friday with a 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 victory over the Italian duo of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her Romanian partner Horia Tecau advanced to the mixed doubles final with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Indian pair Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi. They'll next play Elena Vesnina of Russia and India's Leander Paes. In the men's doubles final Saturday, American twins Bob and Mike Bryan are aiming for a Grand Slam record 12th major when they take on Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek.

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Jack Aho is the reigning state champion in Class 2A and recently shattered a course record at Warren High School. 

But beyond posting some of the area's fastest times, cross country is also a family affair for Aho.

See why he was named this week's Wintrust Athlete of the Week in the video above.

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

“Football is life. Until it’s not.”

That message Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar relayed to his team in the week leading up to the Griffins’ Week 5 tilt against Thornton was an important one. For the 115 student-athletes who make up a team with legitimate state-title aspirations, high school football can feel like a life-and-death situation. Until it’s not.

Private First Class Aaron Toppen, a 2013 Lincoln-Way East graduate, was 19 when he was killed in Afghanistan two years ago. And on that June 9, 2014, a country lost a hero, a family lost a son, a brother and an uncle, and a community lost a friend who had walked through the halls of Lincoln-Way East High School and drove his famous pick-up truck through town just a year earlier.

So when the Griffins held their annual Salute the Troops night last Friday night, before blowing out the Wildcats 42-6, Aaron’s surviving family was an easy choice to join the team as honorary captains. Aaron’s mother, two sisters, uncle, grandmother and niece were recognized before the game, all in loving memory of a fellow Griffin graduate who gave the ultimate sacrifice to his country.

“Aaron’s passing was a big deal to our community,” athletic director Mark Vander Kooi said. “And we wanted to embrace his family and let them know that we cared about them, loved them and appreciated the sacrifice they made.”

When Lincoln-Way East principal Dr. Sharon Michalak contacted Aaron’s sister, Amy, about honoring her brother last week’s football game, the family jumped at the opportunity. Aaron and his family had been honored at a game in 2014, just months after Aaron’s death. And with the Griffins hosting “Salute to Troops” night, and that coinciding with the annual 5k run held in Aaron’s name the following day, the family accepted the invitation with open arms.

“It’s just amazing. The support never stops, and to hear that they want to keep Aaron’s name alive and honor him, it just really makes us feel wonderful,” Aaron’s mother, Pam, said. “It’s a way we’re getting through it, is through the support of everybody.

Many of the Griffins know the Toppen family – Amy and Amanda are also graduates – but for those unfamiliar with Aaron’s story – like the student-athletes who transferred from North – head coach Rob Zvonar made it a point to relay that message during practice week. Before the team dressed Friday night, all 115 players watched a pair of video tributes to Toppen in one of the school’s classrooms.

“It’s awesome playing in his honor,” senior Sam Diehl said. “We understand football’s just a game and that (Aaron) made the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life for our country, that we have more to give than just football to our community, that there are people out there we need to be more thankful of.”

Once the pregame festivities ended the Griffins put on a worthy performance. They scored touchdowns on their first six drives of the game into the third quarter. Jake Arthur threw three more touchdown passes, wide receiver Nick Zelenika topped 100 yards and the Griffins’ offense averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry.

Devin O’Rourke tallied five tackles for loss and two more sacks – he has five in the last two weeks – and the Griffins defense limited the Wildcats to only a late touchdown in the final minute. The Griffins first team defense has allowed zero points in its last six quarters and appears to be putting its early-season struggles behind them.

But the night belonged to the Toppen family and Aaron’s legacy. The night coincided with homecoming weekend, and it brought back more than a handful of Aaron’s old classmates. One of them, current Illinois offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, spoke highly of Aaron and the impact he left on the school and community.

“I always enjoyed talking in class sitting with him,” he said. “Any person that’s going to go out and fight for our country and fight for our freedom, I have unlimited respect for. So obviously it’s a sad thing to remember, but I think it’s awesome seeing the support we have out here, from the community to the school to the administration.”

The following day each member of the Griffins and the coaching staff traveled to Mokena to participate in the third annual Our Fallen Hero 5k run in Aaron’s memory. Zvonar and the seniors joked about the aches and pains they’d feel running the 3.1 miles less than 12 hours after a football game, but they also understood the importance of showing up, honoring a fellow Griffin and raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation.

“We’re able to run if we have to, walk if we have to, do what we have to to get it done,” running back Nigel Muhammad said. “Because it’s not about us.”

Added the 285-pound Diehl: “We’re more than happy to run the 3.1 miles. Even us offensive linemen don’t mind.”

More than 600 people were expected to show up for the fundraiser run, which had raised nearly $50,000 in its first two years.

“Aaron would probably say, ‘Mom I don’t like attention, what’s going on here?’ Because he was never that type,” Pam said. “But such a tragedy has brought together a community, and like Amanda said we’re blessed to be a part of this community…We just love seeing everybody.”

Football is life. Until it’s not.

It would have been enough for Zvonar and the coaching staff to speak about who Aaron Toppen was, and the impact he left on a school, a community and a country. The Toppen family could have simply been honored at halftime. Attending the 5k could have been optional for the team to attend.

Instead, football took a back seat for a night in Frankfort. The Toppens were gracious enough to be placed front-and-center to remember a young man who gave his life to protect the freedoms of each one of the thousands in attendance that evening.

“You think back to Aaron Toppen, who a few years ago was walking the hallways of this school and in the same classroom as these guys, and going to the same homecoming dance, and this was just a little bit ago,” Zvonar said. “A young man that’s barely older than these guys and then he goes off and serves his country and fights for the rights for all of us, and pays the ultimate sacrifice. You certainly don’t let that go by unnoticed.

“You want to really make sure that that’s pointed out, that freedom doesn’t come free. And these young men have an opportunity to come out and play this great game tonight. And all these things they’re allowed to do because of the bravery of young men like Aaron Toppen. One of those situations where I know as long as Coach Vander Kooi and myself are here we’ll do everything we can to stop and talk about him.”