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Pushed to brink, Williams edges Halep, returns to US Open SF

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NEW YORK (AP) Serena Williams’ serve was broken for the first time at this year’s U.S. Open. Twice, in fact. She dropped a set for the first time in the tournament, too, pushed to the brink by Simona Halep in the quarterfinals.

In a match filled with fantastic shotmaking and enthralling exchanges, neither player budged until Williams righted herself in the third set to emerge with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Halep on Wednesday night to get back to the semifinals at Flushing Meadows.

“I knew that I could play a lot better, and I felt like I kind of lost my rhythm a little bit in the second set. Also, Simona started playing really well. She kept going for shots, and she did what she needed to do,” Williams said. “But I knew if I wanted to win this, I had to step it up in the third set.”

Halep, the 2014 French Open runner-up who was seeded No. 5 in New York, staved off all 12 break points held by Williams in the second set and forced a third.

“I wasn’t very happy about that, but I tried not to let that get me down,” Williams said about all the chances she let slip away. “I tried to stay positive and I knew that if I did, I could just stay in the match.”

Indeed, Williams converted the only break chance she would get – or need – in the deciding set to go ahead 3-1, and was on her way.

She finished with 18 aces, a 50-20 edge in total winners, and won the point on 26 of her 32 trips to the net.

Not bad for someone who entered the U.S. Open with questions about a sore right shoulder that began bothering her after she won Wimbledon in July.

Williams is bidding for her seventh title at Flushing Meadows and 23rd overall at a major tournament – both would be records for the Open era, which dates to 1968.

A year ago in the semifinals, Williams’ attempt to finish off a calendar-year Grand Slam ended with a stunning loss to unseeded Roberta Vinci of Italy.

Her opponent Thursday will be 10th-seeded Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, who beat the 34-year-old American’s older sister, Venus, in the fourth round, en route to the first major semifinal of her career. As good as Williams’ serve is, it’s Pliskova who leads the tour in aces in 2016.

Williams, seeded No. 1, had held serve in 37 consecutive games over the past two weeks until Halep broke to get within 3-2 in the opening set. Still, Williams breezed through the rest of that set.

Then came a pivotal segment of the second. Instead of trailing 3-0, which was nearly the case, Halep wound up ahead 3-1.

First, she hung in there to erase seven break points – yes, 7! – in one game to hold for 1-all. Then she got to 15-40 on Williams’ serve, creating two break points that Williams made vanish with three aces in a row, at 117, 109 and 122 mph.

Escape complete? Not quite. Then came two more break points, the last created by a huge Halep backhand that Williams tried in vain to get back with a desperation lefty shot. Williams’ second double-fault of the game followed, and Halep would need to save five more break points before finally cashing in on her fifth set point to send the match to set No. 3.

That’s where Williams once again asserted herself, as she so often does.

In Thursday’s other semifinal, No. 2 Angelique Kerber plays two-time U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki. Kerber has a chance to end Williams’ record-tying string of 186 consecutive weeks at No. 1 in the WTA rankings.

As Halep can attest, though, Williams does not relinquish anything easily.

 

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.”