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Memorable ‘tweener lob helps Nadal get to US Open’s 4th Rd

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NEW YORK — The `tweener lob Rafael Nadal somehow conjured up to get to match point was so spectacular, he was asked whether he’d ever before hit a shot quite like that.

“Well, actually, yes,” Nadal said, nodding and laughing. “Not many times, but I remember one.”

This one certainly was memorable, providing quite a flourish at the end of a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 victory over 47th-ranked Andrey Kuznetsov of Russia on Friday night that put Nadal back in the U.S. Open’s fourth round for the first time since winning the 2013 title.

The owner of 14 Grand Slam trophies, including two at Flushing Meadows, Nadal hadn’t been to the fourth round at any major tournament since the 2015 French Open.

This season, he lost in the first round of the Australian Open. Then he pulled out of the French Open before his third-round match because of a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist, an injury that forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon altogether and miss about 2+ months on tour in all.

“You need to be patient. You need to take your time, recover, work hard,” Nadal said. “That’s what I did. That’s all.”

Nadal said the wrist, which helps generate all of that heavy topspin on his uppercut of a lefty forehand, still feels pain – but noted that it’s “something that is not limiting my game now. That’s the most important thing.”

He said his forehand is improving, and he’s particularly pleased to be more comfortable hitting that stroke down the line, which opens up space to allow him to hit it cross-court. Against Kuznetsov, Nadal produced 15 of his 22 winners with forehands.

But the shot everyone will talk about was not a forehand. Closing in on victory, Nadal raced toward the baseline to retrieve a lob hit by Kuznetsov. With his back to the net, Nadal lifted himself off the ground and flicked a lob of his own through his legs. His racket then slipped out of his hand, but he leaned over to grab it and eventually took that point.

Afterward, Nadal screamed, punched the air and spread his arms wide, pumping his fists.

“You cannot practice that kind of shot,” he said.

Not everything went so perfectly for Nadal on this evening in Arthur Ashe Stadium. His level dipped in the second set, when he double-faulted five times and was broken twice.

Still, he overcame that blip and came up with a strong close. Not only has he not lost a set through three rounds, but Nadal has dropped only 20 games so far.

It’s the fewest games he’s lost en route to the fourth round at the U.S. Open.

Next comes a matchup Sunday against 24th-seeded Lucas Pouille of France.

“I need to be ready for the match,” Nadal said. “I need to be ready to play my best if I want to keep going.”

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

2-time Wimbledon champ Kvitova wins return from knife attack

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PARIS — Sweat-soaked and still wearing her match outfit, Petra Kvitova was looking for someone to hug as she wandered into the players’ lounge in the French Open’s main stadium shortly after leaving the court Sunday.

She found her father, Jiri, and her brother, also Jiri, who greeted her with warm embraces and joyous kisses on the cheek. Kvitova’s family members rarely attend her tournaments, but this was different – “special” was the word she, and others, kept using.

Less than six months after a knife attack at her home, two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova was back competing, winning the first match of her comeback 6-3, 6-2 at Roland Garros against 86th-ranked Julia Boserup of the United States.

“I’m happy with the game, of course,” Kvitova said, “but I mean, it wasn’t really about the game today.”

Indeed, just being there under a cloud-filled sky at Court Philippe Chatrier was a triumph of sorts for Kvitova, who needed surgery on her left hand – the one she uses to hold her racket – after being stabbed by an intruder in the Czech Republic in late December. She was undecided until late last week whether to even try to play in the French Open.

“For us, it’s amazing. It’s miracle. Not even me or Petra thought she could be ready to come back so soon,” said her coach, Jiri Novak. “The prognosis was, let’s just say, not optimistic.”

During her on-court interview, Kvitova addressed Novak, her family and others in her guest box, saying: “Thank you for everything you helped me through (in) this difficult time.”

Several members of her entourage wore black T-shirts with white capital letters on the front that read, “Courage. Belief. Pojd.” That last word, which is the Czech equivalent of “Come on!” and was spelled with a red heart instead of the “O,” is often yelled by Kvitova to celebrate particularly good shots.

“The belief and the mind, the heart, it’s really important,” Kvitova said afterward. “So that’s … what we try to show everyone. I hope that it will be kind of inspiration for other people, as well.”

There were plenty of opportunities for her to clench a fist and scream “Pojd!” on Sunday against Boserup, who was making her debut in the French Open’s main draw and facing a lefty for the first time.

“She’s one of the nicest girls, and we are all really happy to see her back. After what she went through, it’s incredible,” Boserup said. “So it’s a victory for her to be back on court. It was really special.”

Kvitova began things with a quick forehand winner on the opening point.

“Amazing,” she said. “I surprised myself.”

Kvitova wound up compiling the match’s first 10 winners and finished with a 31-9 edge in that category. She took 15 of the first 20 points en route to a 3-0 lead and never really faced a whole lot of resistance, other than when she saved three break points – the only ones she had to deal with in the match – while ahead 3-1.

When it was over, Kvitova dropped her racket near the baseline and removed her blue headband. As she walked to the net for a handshake, her eyes welled with tears.

“We are happy that she is healthy. The hand is good – and also the head,” her brother Jiri said. “Mentally, she is back.”

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

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

Venus Williams eases into French Open’s second round after beating Qiang Wang

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In a record 20th appearance at the French Open, Venus Williams eased into the second round with a straight sets victory over Qiang Wang of China.

Williams, who is seeded 10th, saved two set points to win 6-4, 7-6 (3).

The 36-year-old American will play Kurumi Nara of Japan in the next round.