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Ruthless Pliskova routs Cornet, wins Brisbane title

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BRISBANE, Australia — A ruthless Karolina Pliskova won all but five points in the first six games to set up a 6-0, 6-3 rout of Alize Cornet in the Brisbane International final on Saturday night, setting an ominous tone for the first Grand Slam tournament of the season.

The U.S. Open finalist will return to a career-high No. 5 ranking for the Australian Open, which begins Jan. 16, after winning her first Brisbane title and seventh on the WTA tour.

The first set lasted less than 20 minutes, with third-seeded Pliskova not dropping a point on serve until the last game. Cornet, who was unseeded and ranked No. 41, didn’t get on the scoreboard until she held to open the second set.

“I didn’t miss almost whole set in the first set,” Pliskova said. “Yeah, I was feeling pretty good today.”

Cornet said she couldn’t get a read on Pliskova’s serve, rating it as more difficult to handle than 22-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams’ serve.

Pliskova is “serving really, really well. I mean, I played Serena a few times, and I could always be able to return a first serve … somehow,” Cornet said. “When you have a serve like this, it’s such a weapon. It’s pretty much nightmare, actually.”

The 24-year-old Pliskova had a breakout season in 2016, reaching her first Grand Slam final – beating both Venus and Serena Williams before losing to Angelique Kerber at the U.S. Open – and helping the Czech Republic win the Fed Cup.

On the men’s side, Milos Raonic’s title defense ended in a 7-6 (7), 6-2 semifinal loss to Grigor Dimitrov, who will play third-seeded Kei Nishikori in Sunday’s final.

Dimitrov fended off set point in the tiebreaker and converted his own moments later. He broke Raonic’s serve twice in the second set.

Raonic didn’t blame the late finish Friday in his comeback quarterfinal win over Rafael Nadal, or the toll that playing the 14-time Grand Slam winner took on his body.

Dimitrov “made it obviously very difficult (and) I didn’t turn around and bring the performance I needed to bring,” Raonic said. “I was just a tidbit slow. ”

Raonic made the semifinals at the Australian Open last year, reached his first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon and finished the year at No. 3 in the rankings. But he hasn’t won a title since his success in Brisbane last year. He thinks his preparation can change that in 2017.

“I feel very good about it,” he said. “I’m on that right track – I feel like if I can avoid that hiccup, I can have a very, very good time in Melbourne.”

Nishikori beat U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka 7-6 (3), 6-3 to reach the final for the first time at the season-opening tournament, ending a run of three semifinal defeats. He has a 3-0 record against Dimitrov, who lost the 2013 Brisbane final to Andy Murray.

Wawrinka, who won the Chennai tournament in India in the first week of the season for the three previous years, had treatment on his left ankle in the first and second sets but didn’t expect it to cause him any trouble at the Australian Open.

Nishikori took full advantage, converting his first break point in the second set to take a 3-1 lead when Wawrinka missed consecutive backhands. The No. 2-seeded Wawrinka broke back immediately, but dropped his serve again in the next game.

Wawrinka beat Nishikori in the semifinals of the U.S. Open last year; his only win in their past four matches. Now they’re tied 4-4 in career meetings.

Nishikori was making his seventh trip to Brisbane, and playing a semifinal for the fourth time.

“I tried many times, and this is first time to get Sunday, so I’m really happy,” the 2014 U.S. Open finalist said. “And especially beating Stan today, it was a good start of the year. Tomorrow it’s going to be maybe tougher match, but I look forward to playing the final.”

Petra Kvitova to play at French Open

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PARIS —¬†Only two months after picking up her racket for the first time following a knife attack at her home, Petra Kvitova will be playing at the French Open.

The two-time Wimbledon champion said Friday she will make her comeback at Roland Garros, although she still lacks power and strength.

“I knew this day would come,” said Kvitova, who was attacked by an intruder last year. “I’m really happy that really here, the dream comes true.”

Kvitova has missed all season while recovering from surgery on her racket-holding left hand. She sustained damage to the tendons in her left hand, along with injuries to all five fingers and two nerves, during the attack.

Doctors initially thought she would need more time before returning to tennis. But Kvitova’s recovery was faster than expected and she said last month that she was signing up for the French Open, which begins Sunday, in hopes of being able to compete.

“It wasn’t easy, but I’m happy that I work through this and I can play tennis and I can be in the draw,” she said.

Kvitova, who won the Wimbledon title in 2011 and 2014 and climbed as high as No. 2 in the WTA rankings, was not allowed to speak about the attack itself because a police investigation is still ongoing. However, she spoke about the anxiety associated with her dreadful experience.

“I didn’t sleep well the days after, but I wasn’t really staying alone,” she said. “From the beginning I was really feeling really weird when I went in the city or somewhere. I was always staring to the guys and looking if there are no strangers there. But with the time, it’s better.”

Kvitova also provided details on the intense rehabilitation process that preceded her “last-minute” decision to try her luck in Paris.

“I worked very hard behind the scenes,” she said. “From the beginning I had this hand in a splint for two months, and even then I was practicing every day, always putting the splint away and trying to make this scar softer. So from the second day after surgery I started to work with that, which was kind of easy, just passive work with the fingers. I couldn’t move them.”

Kvitova got rid of the splint after two weeks and started to move her fingers slightly. She said she can’t still move them completely.

Kvitova also consulted with a hand specialist in the French city of Grenoble every month and she started practicing with a racket at the end of March.

“I hit a few forehands with soft balls from the net, and it felt very, very weird,” she said. “I didn’t really have touch in the hand for holding the racket. I’m happy that I didn’t have to change any techniques or something. Everything seems OK. Of course the hand doesn’t have that power and the strength yet, but I’m working on it. Hopefully one day will be everything perfect.”

Kvitova will open her campaign on the red clay against 86th-ranked Julia Boserup. She is making her ninth appearance at Roland Garros, where she reached the semifinals in 2012.

“Not many people believe that I can play tennis again. So I’m happy that I can play,” Kvitova said. “I actually already won my biggest fight. I stayed in life and I have all my fingers.”

Nishikori saves three match points in Geneva Open QF win

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GENEVA — Kei Nishikori saved three straight match points in the deciding set before outlasting Kevin Anderson 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (6) in the Geneva Open quarterfinals on Thursday.

The second-seeded Nishikori was serving at 4-5, 0-40 before rallying to beat the 62nd-ranked South African, who fired 14 aces without allowing any by his opponent.

Nishikori also trailed in the tiebreaker before creating a second match-point chance with a forehand crosscourt service return for a winner. He clinched with a forehand winner off a looping net-cord ball.

The No. 9-ranked Japanese player will face 33rd-ranked Mischa Zverev of Germany in the semifinals on Friday.

The Russian-born Zverev, who came through qualifying, beat fifth-seeded Steve Johnson of the United States 6-4, 7-5.