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.

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Here are some of Monday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Preview: Cubs look to bounce back vs. Giants tonight on CSN

White Sox fall to Diamondbacks in series opener

Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen

Should Blackhawks' next assistant coach be Joel Quenneville's choice?

How Bears are using veteran videos to school rookies on NFL way

Luis Robert the latest high-end acquisition for White Sox

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Carlos Rodon 'getting closer' but still without time frame for return

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

MMQB's Peter King's thoughts on Trubisky, Howard, White and the Bears offense

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch pitching. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”