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Djokovic gets a 2nd free pass at US Open when Youzhny quits

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NEW YORK —¬†Thanks to injuries to two opponents, Novak Djokovic did not exactly need to put in much work to reach the U.S. Open’s fourth round for the 10th consecutive year.

So it made sense that the defending champion and No. 1 seed would spend some extra time practicing in Arthur Ashe Stadium under the watchful eye of coach Boris Becker on Friday after spending a grand total of 31 minutes of match time on court over the second and third rounds.

“I don’t think I ever had this kind of situation in my career,” Djokovic said.

Yes, Djokovic got another free pass at Flushing Meadows, advancing this time when Mikhail Youzhny stopped because of a strained left hamstring while trailing 4-2 after a little more than a half-hour of play.

Youzhny received treatment from a trainer early on, getting his left leg wrapped, but briefly tried to continue. After holding serve in the sixth game, closing it with an overhead putaway up at the net, the Russian – a semifinalist in New York in 2006 and 2010, and a former top-10 player now ranked 61st – shook his head and told the chair umpire he couldn’t keep going.

“Obviously, I wish Mischa a speedy recovery,” Djokovic said in an on-court interview in Ashe. “He carried an injury into this match, that’s what he said.”

Djokovic did not play at all on Wednesday, when the man he was supposed to face in the second round, Jiri Vesely, withdrew from the tournament a couple of hours before that match because of inflammation in his left forearm.

“There’s plenty of things to work on. That’s the beauty of sport: Every day is different. The challenge is every day you feel different on the court. I work more or less on every aspect of my game,” Djokovic said.

“The first week of a Grand Slam, obviously, things are not 100 percent, so you are getting a way through the tournament. I didn’t get too much of match play,” Djokovic said. “I’ll try to get on the practice court once more.”

And that he did, changing out of his white collared match shirt into a gray T-shirt and getting in some training. As Becker stood nearby, tossing over tennis balls, Djokovic hit serve after serve. Then he hit return after return of serves from a practice partner.

A few hundred fans remained in the stands at Ashe, enjoying that rare chance for an up-close look at a man who has won 12 Grand Slam titles, including two at the U.S. Open and two this year. Plenty of cellphone photos were taken.

In Djokovic’s first-round victory way back on Monday, he experienced problems with his right arm. He was massaged by a trainer after only five games, then repeatedly shook that arm or flexed his elbow and grimaced following serves, even the ones that were far slower than he usually hits. He also dropped a set in an opening-round Grand Slam match for the first time since 2010.

Djokovic declined to discuss his health after that outing, and he hasn’t really gotten a chance to test the arm in match conditions since.

On Sunday, he will be scheduled to play either 20th-seeded John Isner of the U.S. or Kyle Edmund of Britain for a spot in the quarterfinals.

After looking nearly unbeatable while becoming the first man in nearly 50 years to win four Grand Slam trophies in a row, Djokovic has had less success of late. Since completing his career Grand Slam at the French Open in June, he lost in the third round at Wimbledon, won the Toronto Masters, was upset in the first round of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics by Juan Martin del Potro, then missed the Cincinnati Masters because of a sore left wrist.

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

Serena Williams returning to competition for US Fed Cup team

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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) The U.S. Tennis Association says Serena Williams will return to competition for the first time in more than a year at the country’s Fed Cup matches against the Netherlands next month.

Williams has not played an official match since winning the Australian Open in January 2017 for her 23rd Grand Slam singles title. She was pregnant during that tournament and gave birth to a daughter on Sept. 1.

Joining Williams on U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi’s roster announced Tuesday is older sister Venus, a seven-time major champion. The siblings have not played on the Fed Cup team together in three years.

Also on the team: CoCo Vandeweghe, a semifinalist at the Australian Open and U.S. Open last year. A fourth member of the U.S. squad will be announced next week.

The U.S. won last year’s Fed Cup.

The matches against the Netherlands will be held on an indoor hard court in Ashville, North Carolina, on Feb. 10-11.

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

Injured Nadal out of Australian Open; Cilic into semifinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) An injured and visibly struggling Rafael Nadal retired while trailing in the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal match against Marin Cilic.

Top-ranked Nadal fended off five break points in the last game before Cilic broke his serve, then the 16-time major winner went to shake hands with the umpire and his opponent, and angrily hurled his headband into his equipment bag.

No. 6-seeded Cilic advanced to his first semifinal in Australia since 2010 with a score of 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 2-0, retired.

Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open champion, will next play No. 49-ranked Kyle Edmund, who beat No. 3-ranked Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to reach a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time.

Nadal limped into a news conference about a half-hour later, still wincing when he stepped up onto a platform. He said he felt muscle pain in his upper right leg in the third set but played through it. In the fourth set, chasing a drop shot, he felt the pain get worse “but didn’t realize how bad.”

“Tough moments -not (for) the first time here,” he said. “I’m a positive person, but today is an opportunity lost to be in a semifinal for a Grand Slam and fight for an important title for me.

“It’s really tough to accept.”

Nadal said he’d have medical scans Wednesday to determine the exact location and extent of the injury, which he could only describe as being high on his right leg but not in the hip.

“Unbelievable performance from both of us and really unfortunate for Rafa,” Cilic said. “He’s such an unbelievable competitor. He always gives his best … it’s very unfortunate for him to finish this way.”

It was only the second time Nadal had retired during a Grand Slam match – the last time was also an Australian Open quarterfinal, in 2010 against Andy Murray.

On Tuesday night, he needed a medical timeout after going down 4-1 in the fourth set for treatment on his leg.

Nadal returned but was clearly bothered by the injury, limping and taking as much time as possible as he tried to stretch between points.

He called the trainer again after losing the fourth set, and lasted only two further games.

Cilic had only previously beaten Nadal once in their six previous matches – in their first match at Beijing in 2009.

Nadal had a delayed start to the season because of an injured right knee, but appeared to be in good form through the first four rounds. He now hasn’t won back-to-back Australian Open quarterfinals since 2008 and ’09, the year he won his only Australian title.

“I worked hard to be here,” said Nadal, who skipped tournaments in Abu Dhabi and Brisbane, Australia, while his knee recovered at the start of the season. “We did all the things that we believed were the right things to do.”

His absence also means there’s only one of last year’s singles finalists remaining in the tournament. Roger Federer, who beat Nadal in five sets last year, is playing Tomas Berdych in a quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Serena Williams didn’t defend her title, deciding she hadn’t had enough time to prepare following the birth of her first child last September. Her older sister, Venus Williams, was beaten in the first round.

On top of that, six-time champion Novak Djokovic was upset in the fourth round.

There’ll be a British man in the Australian Open semifinals for the seventh time in nine years, but it won’t be five-time finalist Murray – who skipped the season-opening tournament to have surgery on his hip.

Edmund had never played in a major quarterfinal, had never won five consecutive matches at tour level, had lost both of his previous matches against Dimitrov and had never beaten a top five player.

He checked all those boxes on Rod Laver Arena.

“I am loving it right now, just the way I’m playing,” Edmund said. “My first Grand Slam semifinal. First time I played on one of the biggest courts in the world. To beat a quality of player like Grigor. They’re great feelings. So, yeah, I just try to enjoy it as much as possible.”

After breaking Dimitrov’s serve in the ninth game of the fourth set, Edmund set up match point with an ace. Then he had to wait before a video challenge confirmed that Dimitrov’s last shot – a floating backhand – was out.

“I just held my nerve in that last game and prayed that last ball would be out,” Edmund said. It was out. And so was Dimitrov, who lost a five-set semifinal here last year to Nadal.

“Everything went his way today,” Dimitrov said. “It’s hard to hide a disappointment. It hurts, and so it should.”

Edmund, who had a first-round upset over U.S. Open finalist Kevin Anderson, is now the center of attention for the tennis-loving British public.

“I know what it feels like to be Andy Murray the last eight years,” he said. “It’s probably the first time I’ve done well on my own, so there’s more attention there. Of course you take it in stride.”

Elise Mertens is facing a similar experience.

Mertens upset fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-0 to extend her winning streak to 10 matches, becoming the first Belgian since Kim Clijsters in 2012 to reach the semifinals here.

Mertens, who trains at Clijsters’ academy, said: “Kim, thanks for watching. I’m trying to be in your footsteps this week.”

In the semis, she’ll play either second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki or Carla Suarez Navarro.