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Serena Williams ends 9-month title drought at Italian Open

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ROME (AP) Serena Williams ended a nine-month title drought with a 7-6 (5), 6-3 win over Madison Keys in an all-American Italian Open final Sunday.

Williams’ previous title came in Cincinnati in August – a month before her attempt at a calendar-year Grand Slam ended with a semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci at the U.S. Open.

“It feels great,” Williams said, pointing out that she’s only played four tournaments since Cincinnati. “So it’s not like I was playing every week. So that’s kind of how I look at it. But it feels great to win a title, especially on clay.”

It’s Williams’ fourth title in Rome and it comes exactly a week before the French Open begins.

“I’m feeling pretty fit. So I’m looking forward to it,” said Williams, who will be attempting to defend her title at Roland Garros, but won’t have to answer any questions about a potential calendar-year Grand Slam this year. “I’m going to definitely go in there and feel more calm and (not) feel stress to have to win.”

Williams addressed the crowd in Italian during the post-match ceremony then took a selfie as she posed with the trophy.

It was the first time two American women have met in a final on clay since Serena beat older sister Venus in the 2002 French Open.

When they met at the net after the match, Serena told the 24th-ranked Keys that she can be No. 1 one day.

“Too bad what she says doesn’t just happen,” the 21-year-old Keys said. “But it’s always great to hear that from her. … Hearing that is definitely something that makes me just work harder.”

The last all-American final in Rome was in 1970, when Billie Jean King beat Julie Heldman.

In the men’s tournament, top-ranked Novak Djokovic was facing Andy Murray in a rematch of last week’s Madrid Open final.

In the Rome record book, Serena drew level with Conchita Martinez and Gabriela Sabatini, who also took four titles at the Foro Italico. Chris Evert holds the women’s record with five titles while Rafael Nadal holds the overall mark with seven.

It was the 70th title overall in Serena’s career.

Keys was playing in the biggest final of her career. She posted personal best results at all four majors last year, including reaching the Australian Open semifinals and the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

Keys broke Serena at love in the opening game of the match and hit six aces in her opening two service games to take a 3-1 lead.

As Serena became more aggressive, however, Keys hit two double faults to hand the break back, making it 3-3.

In the tiebreak, Serena took control with a wicked cross-court forehand that Keys couldn’t get back then closed it out on her first set point with a big serve out wide that Keys returned long.

After taking the first set, Serena pumped her fists and yelled to herself, `Come on!”‘

In the second set, Serena’s only real trouble came when she was broken while serving for the match at 5-2. But she quickly ended it the next game, concluding the tournament without dropping a set.

Serena hit only 13 winners to Keys’ 17 but had fewer unforced errors – 24-32 – and converted five of her six break-point opportunities.

Serena improved to 16-0 against Americans since losing to Venus in the Montreal semifinals in 2014. Her last loss to an American in a final came against Venus at Wimbledon in 2008.

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Nadal, Dimitrov advance to Australian Open quarterfinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) After snuffing out local hopes for yet another Australian Open, Grigor Dimitrov huddled with Nick Kyrgios at the net and the pair exchanged encouraging words.

It was Kyrgios, having just lost 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (4) in the fourth round in a typically tempestuous performance, who left No. 3-ranked Dimitrov with this message: “Believe.”

Dimitrov has never won a major, coming closest here last year before losing a semifinal to Rafael Nadal in five sets, but is enhancing his credentials as a next generation champion.

Nadal secured his spot in a 10th Australian Open quarterfinal earlier Sunday on Rod Laver Arena, beating Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3 in 3 hours and 51 minutes.

The 16-time major winner draped an arm around his Argentine friend and patted him on top of the head. If he needed a fitness test in the first week in his comeback from an injured right knee, he got it.

“A great battle … he’s a good friend of mine,” Nadal said. “This is the first big match that I played in 2018. That’s confidence for myself … confidence I can resist for four hours on court at a good intensity.”

Nadal will next play 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, who collected his 100th Grand Slam match win with a 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (0), 7-6 (3) victory over No. 10 Pablo Carreno Busta.

“I had the 300th win of my career at the U.S. Open in 2014, so this is also beautiful one,” Cilic said of his latest major milestone. “I hope I’m going to continue and gather three more here.”

Nadal lost last year’s Australian Open final to Roger Federer, but went on to regain the No. 1 ranking and win the French and U.S. Open titles before bringing his season to a premature end because of an injured right knee.

Despite not playing any competitive matches in his Aussie Open preparation, Nadal advanced through three rounds without dropping a set.

That streak finished when Schwartzman took the second set, rebounding three times after dropping serve to break back and win the tiebreaker.

Nadal lifted to win the third, but Schwartzman didn’t relent.

The second game of the fourth set lasted almost 13 minutes, with Nadal finally holding after saving five break points.

He broke again in the next game to regain control.

“It was a good test for me. It was a lot of hours on court. Moments under pressure,” Nadal said.

Britain’s Kyle Edmund reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal with a 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-2, 6-3 afternoon win over Andreas Seppi and could relax and watch the night-time entertainment featuring Dimitrov and Kyrgios. They all played two weeks ago in Brisbane, where Edmund lost to Dimitrov, who lost to eventual champion Kyrgios.

Both Dimitrov and Kyrgios got tense at key times in the night match. Dimitrov was broken while serving for the match. Kyrgios was called for a foot fault, double-faulted on a set point and smashed an easy overhead into the net on a break point after dominating the rally. He had 36 aces, and some second serves recorded at faster than 202 kph (125 mph).

“Only a couple points in it, you know. It wasn’t like I got demolished out there,” said Kyrgios, who missed the chance to end the drought for local men that dates back to the 1976 Australian Open. “I had a lot of chances to win the match and I just came up short.”

He tipped his mate Dimitrov to go far.

“He hasn’t even found his best form yet and he’s still getting through all those matches, which is pretty frightening,” Kyrgios said. “Once he finds his feet and he has more confidence, he’s got a real chance at winning it.”

Dimitrov thanked him for the support, and said he’s growing more confident in his game.

Caroline Wozniacki continued to cash in on her second chance, reaching the quarterfinals here for the first time since 2012 with a 6-3, 6-0 win over Magdalena Rybarikova.

After saving match points and coming back from 5-1 down in the third set of her second-round win, No. 2-ranked Wozniacki said she was “playing with the house money” and had nothing to lose.

Wozniacki next plays Carla Suarez Navarro, who rallied from a set and 4-1 down to beat No. 32 Anett Kontaveit 4-6, 6-4, 8-6.

The other quarterfinal will feature the winners of two tune-up events. Brisbane International champion Elina Svitolina beat Denisa Allertova 6-3, 6-0 in a match that started just before midnight.

Fourth-seeded Svitolina next plays Hobart International winner Elise Mertens, who beat Petra Martic to reach the quarterfinals in her Australian Open debut.

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More AP coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/AustralianOpen

Kerber beats Sharapova in 3rd round; Halep in long-haul win

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Angelique Kerber is the only major winner remaining in the Australian Open women’s draw after ending Maria Sharapova’s comeback tour to Melbourne Park.

The 2016 champion routed Sharapova 6-1, 6-3 in the third-round match on Saturday night to extend her winning streak to 12 matches, including winning the Sydney International title last week.

Five-time major winner Sharapova was back at the Australian Open for the first time since 2016, when a failed test for meldonium led to a 15-month doping ban.

It was all over in one hour and four minutes, a vast contrast to top-ranked Simona Halep’s 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 win in three hours, 45 minutes over American Lauren Davis in the opening match on Rod Laver.

The third set took 2:22 and momentum swung. Halep wasted chances to serve for the match in the ninth, 11th and 15th games, then had to save three match points in the 22nd. There were 11 service breaks and two medical timeouts – for Davis to get treatment on both feet – before Halep converted on her first match point.

“I never played the third set so long, so I’m really happy I could stay and win it. I’m almost dead,” Halep said of the match which equaled Chanda Rubin’s win over Arantxa Shanchez Vicario in 1996 – also 48 games – for the Australian Open record in terms of most games.

“I just feel that my muscles are gone,” said Halep, who badly twisted her left ankle in the first round. “My ankle is, I don’t know how it is because I don’t feel it anymore! But … it was nice to win this match.”

Halep will play Naomi Osaka, who beat 18th-seeded Ashleigh Barty 6-4, 6-2 in a match that was moved from the center court to Margaret Court Arena because of the two long matches on Rod Laver.

No. 20 Barbora Strycova beat U.S. qualifier Bernarda Pera 6-2, 6-2, leaving U.S. Open finalist Madison Keys as the only American woman to reach the fourth round.

Keys advanced 6-3, 6-4 over Ana Bogdan and will next play No. 8 Caroline Garcia, who beat Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-3, 5-7, 6-2.

Sixth-seeded Karolina Pliskova beat No. 29 Lucie Safarova 7-6 (6), 7-5 in a match featuring just one service break.

On the men’s side, Hyeon Chung took out a Zverev for the second time this week. Chung beat fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev 5-7, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 six days after a win over No. 32 Mischa Zverev in the first round.

Another unexpected loss at a major had the highly-touted Zverev admitted he may have a problem.

“Definitely not physical, so… I have some figuring out to do, what happens to me in deciding moments in Grand Slam,” he said.

The 20-year-old Zverev has five titles on the elite tour but his fourth-round exit at Wimbledon last year remains his best run at a major.

Tomas Berdych ended 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro’s return to Melbourne Park for the first time since 2014 with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 win.

Fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem beat Adrian Mannarino 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 to set up a fourth-round match against Tennys Sandgren, who continued his career-best run by beating Maximilian Marterer 5-7, 6-3, 7-5, 7-6 (5).

Former world junior No. 1 Marton Fucsovics beat Nicolas Kicker 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 and No. 25 Fabio Fognini overcame Julien Benneteau 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.

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More AP coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/AustralianOpen