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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.

 

Sharapova loses to Rybarikova at Kremlin Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) Maria Sharapova was beaten by Magdalena Rybarikova 7-6 (3), 6-4 in the first round of the Kremlin Cup on Tuesday, ending her bid for a second title in two weeks.

Sharapova, who won the Tianjin Open two days ago, brought her usual power but lacked accuracy with some wild swings on key points.

“I felt fine physically, to be honest, especially after having played five matches in five days (in Tianjin). That was a big surprise,” Sharapova said. “Maybe I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been … Maybe if this tournament hadn’t been in Moscow, I wouldn’t have played it.”

Sharapova was under pressure on serve from the start and saved six break points before finally being broken to 6-5. She responded by breaking Rybarikova, but Sharapova’s double fault at 4-3 in the tiebreaker handed the Slovakian the momentum to close out the set.

Rybarikova, seeded eighth, sealed the match after saving two break points to lead 5-4, then breaking Sharapova in the next game. Rybarikova will play Alize Cornet in the second round.

Six months after she returned from a 15-month doping ban, Sharapova is still trying to move back up the rankings from her current position of 57th. Her first tour appearance in Moscow in a decade drew a large and enthusiastic crowd despite taking place on a Tuesday afternoon.

Also Tuesday, seventh-seeded Julia Goerges beat Russian qualifier Polina Monova 6-0, 6-3 to set up a second-round meeting with Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan.

In the men’s Kremlin Cup tournament, sixth-seeded Damir Dzumhur defeated Thomas Fabbiano 6-3, 0-6, 6-2.

Maria Sharapova wins her 1st title since doping ban

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TIANJIN, China (AP) Maria Sharapova won her first WTA title since returning from a doping ban after defeating Aryna Sabalenka to win the Tianjin Open on Sunday.

The Russian, a tournament wild card, overcame Belarusian teenager Sabalenka 7-5, 7-6 (8) despite trailing heavily in both sets.

Sharapova last won a title at the Italian Open in May 2015.

The former top-ranked player and owner of five major titles, including the 2006 U.S. Open, tested positive for the newly banned drug meldonium at the Australian Open in January 2016. That led to a 15-month doping ban, which expired in April.

“Such a special, special tournament, and victory for me, one that I’ll remember forever,” Sharapova said. “Sometimes you never know when it will all come together but it happened to me this week in Tianjin.”

Sharapova displayed resilience as she came from behind in both sets to overcome her 19-year-old opponent.

Sabalenka led 4-1 in the opener and 5-1 in the second before relenting to Sharapova’s greater big-match experience. It was Sharapova’s 36th WTA singles title.

The 30-year-old Sharapova played in her first Grand Slam tournament following the ban at the U.S. Open in August, where she reached the fourth round. Sunday’s result will lift Sharapova up to No. 57 in the world rankings.