Djokovic beats Nadal for 7th straight time, reaches semis

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ROME (AP) Novak Djokovic extended his recent mastery over Rafael Nadal with a 7-5, 7-6 (4) win in the Italian Open quarterfinals on Friday, helped by Nadal wasting five set points in the second set.

Djokovic has won the last seven of their 49 encounters, the most in the Open Era. Overall, Djokovic leads the series 26-23.

This was their last opportunity to play each other before the French Open, which starts in nine days.

Djokovic’s semifinal opponent will be either Kei Nishikori or Dominic Thiem.

In the other half of the draw, Andy Murray overcame some trouble on his service games to beat David Goffin 6-1, 7-5 and improve his record on clay this year and last to 27-3.

“I’m getting rewarded now for the work that I put in over the years on this surface,” Murray said. “I deserve it because I have worked hard for it.”

Murray’s semifinal opponent will be French qualifier Lucas Pouille, who advanced when Argentine opponent Juan Monaco withdrew because of injury.

Organizers said Monaco, who upset Stan Wawrinka in three sets Thursday, had a problem with his left side.

In the women’s quarterfinals, Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza beat Timea Bacsinszky 7-5, 6-2 and will next meet Madison Keys, who eliminated Barbora Strycova 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

Also, Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania defeated Misaki Doi of Japan 6-2, 7-6 (3) and will next face either top-ranked Serena Williams or Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Seven-time champion Nadal and four-time winner Djokovic have combined to win the last 11 titles at the Foro Italico, and their match was billed as “a premature final.”

Djokovic closed out the first set by sticking out his racket at the last second for a volley winner to finish off a close exchange at the net, concluding a long point that also saw the Serb spinning around far behind the baseline to retrieve a shot with a desperation backhand.

Djokovic reacted to winning the first set with a big fist pump, but then after dropping his serve to start the second he slammed his racket to the clay in frustration.

Nadal called for a trainer to examine his left foot while leading 2-1 in the second set, apparently because the Spaniard was having trouble feeling his foot. The trainer tapped around in a few areas to see if Nadal could feel anything then cut off supportive tape around his ankle.

Serving for the second set at 5-4, Nadal wasted five chances to push it to a third then shanked a forehand off his racket frame into the stands to set up Djokovic’s first break point of the set, which the Serb promptly converted.

The match lasted 2 hours, 24 minutes.

Murray, meanwhile, hasn’t dropped a set this week and was a finalist at last week’s Madrid Open. He’ll return to No. 2 in the rankings ahead of Roger Federer on Monday.

Murray dropped his serve in the opening game of the match and three times in the second set as he and Goffin struggled amid swirling winds that whipped the clay up into their eyes.

“Second set obviously was up and down, but I don’t think there was any other reason for that apart from the conditions making it very tricky to play good tennis,” Murray said before going off to spend time with his three-month-old daughter, Sophia Oliva.

The 52nd-ranked Pouille gained a spot in the tournament as a lucky loser after Jo-Wilfried Tsonga withdrew because of an adductor injury. He beat David Ferrer in straight sets in the third round, and reaching the quarterfinals was already a career-best result.

“I’m very lucky and I cross the fingers it’s keeping this way,” Pouille said, adding that he goes to the casino now and then. “Sometimes I win but the next I lose. … I’m not especially lucky.”

Next week, Pouille will move into the top 32 of the rankings, making him a seeded player for Roland Garros.

Azarenka aims to come back in time for Wimbledon

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MOSCOW — Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka says she is planning to return to competition before Wimbledon.

Azarenka, who was ranked No. 1 for seven months in 2012 and 2013, went on a break last July to have her first child. She had previously been targeting a return at the July 31-Aug. 6 Bank of the West Classic in California.

In a statement on Twitter, the Belarusian says “my training has been progressing well and I feel ready to start competing,” adding that she plans “to play one of the grass court events prior to Wimbledon.”

Wimbledon starts July 3.

Azarenka won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013, and has twice reached the Wimbledon semifinals.

Djokovic announces Agassi will coach him at French Open

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ROME —¬†Novak Djokovic is joining forces with Andre Agassi in an effort to return to No. 1.

Djokovic announced Sunday that Agassi will coach him at the French Open, which starts next Sunday.

“I spoke to Andre the last couple weeks on the phone, and we decided to get together in Paris,” Djokovic said. “So he’s going to be there. We’ll see what (the) future brings.

“We are both excited to work together and see where it takes us. We don’t have any long-term commitment. It’s just us trying to get to know each other in Paris a little bit,” Djokovic added. “He will not stay the whole tournament. He’s going to stay only to a certain time, and then we’ll see after that what’s going to happen.”

The second-ranked Djokovic split with longtime coach Marian Vajda and two other team members – fitness coach Gebhard Phil Gritsch, and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic – at the start of the month.

Agassi, who retired in 2006, won eight Grand Slam titles.

Djokovic has won 12 Grand Slams.

“Andre is someone that I have tremendous respect for as a person and as a player,” Djokovic said. “He has been through everything that I’m going through. On the court he understands the game amazingly well. I am enjoying every conversation that I have with him.

“But also, on the other hand, he’s someone that nurtures the family values, philanthropy work. He’s a very humble man, is very educated. He’s a person that can contribute to my life on and off the court a lot. I’m very excited to see what is ahead of us.”

The pairing is the latest in a series of top players working with former standouts, from Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl, Rafael Nadal and Carlos Moya, and Kei Nishikori and Michael Chang.

Djokovic was coached by Boris Becker the last three seasons, but they split last year.

Vajda started working with Djokovic in 2006.

Djokovic lost his No. 1 ranking to Andy Murray last year after a slump in form following his French Open triumph.

He lost in the third round at Wimbledon, his earliest defeat in a Grand Slam in seven years, lost in the first round at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, reached the final of the U.S. Open, and lost early again at the Australian Open.

Djokovic finished 2016 at No. 2, his current ranking. He’s won only one of his last 11 tournaments.

While Agassi has not coached a top player before, Djokovic said his record as a player and spokesman of the game was enough to convince him.

“He’s a legend of our sport,” Djokovic said. “He’s made a mark in this sport forever. He’s won everything there is to win in tennis.

“He was a revolutionary player because he had this charisma, he had this approach to tennis and to life that was quite different from others. That’s why he was so interesting.”

Agassi has already been offering advice on the phone.

“He’s been definitely following up closely all the matches, the big matches, especially on the TV,” Djokovic said. “So he knows players, he knows everyone that I was playing against in (the) last couple of weeks, so we talked before every match.

Djokovic added, “I already feel like we are very kind of close to each other and creating this nice vibe.”