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Nadal wins, keeps prospects of Roger-Rafa final alive

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Another Roger vs. Rafa final is still in the mix at an Australian Open with an almost retro vibe.

They’re on opposite sides of the draw, and each is a semifinal win away from a classic showdown at Melbourne Park, where Roger Federer is bidding for an 18th major title, and where Rafael Nadal is targeting his 15th.

Nadal saved six set points in the second set against one of the best servers in the business on Wednesday, beating third-ranked Milos Raonic 6-4, 7-6 (7), 6-4.

With that, he earned a spot in the semifinals at a Grand Slam for the first time since winning the French Open in 2014. He’ll next play 25-year-old Grigor Dimitrov, the only player in the last quartet who has yet to turn 30.

Federer and No. 4 Stan Wawrinka will contest an all-Swiss semifinal the night before Nadal returns to Rod Laver Arena to play Dimitrov. Having three 30-somethings in the semifinals equals the Open era-mark set in 1968 at Roland Garros. There’s also three 30-something women in the semifinals.

Nadal didn’t want to overcomplicate matters and talk about generational things. He didn’t want to think too far ahead to a final, or to Baby Fed – as Dimitrov has been dubbed for his similar backhand and style – while he savored his quarterfinal win.

“Let me enjoy today, the victory, being in semifinal,” the 30-year-old Spaniard said. “For me, is great news again. Is a good start of the season.

“Now I have a very tough match against Dimitrov.”

Dimitrov has lost seven of his eight matches against Nadal, but the 2014 Wimbledon semifinalist is growing in confidence after winning the Brisbane International title at the start of the month after a period in the tennis doldrums.

“In order to win a slam, there’s no shortcut,” the Bulgarian said. “If you think about it, I mean, when have you seen an easy semifinal or something like that? You got to work for it. I have to fight.”

Federer and Nadal, who dominated the sport for so long until the emergence of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, know that more than most. Both are returning from extended injury layoffs and showing signs that the time off has worked. The 35-year-old Federer was out for six months resting his left knee since a semifinal exit at Wimbledon. He hasn’t won a major since Wimbledon in 2012 but has reached three finals since then.

Nadal is coming back from a couple months off with an injured left wrist, and he has been building momentum. His wins over Alexander Zverev and Gael Monfils in the third and fourth rounds gave him confidence, and his quarterfinal victory over Raonic, who beat him two weeks ago in Brisbane, highlighted his rapid improvement.

Four-time Australian Open champion Federer has come through some matches on the other side of the draw, too, beating Grand Slam finalists Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori in the third and fourth rounds and overwhelming Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals only two nights after the German had ousted top-ranked Murray from the tournament.

If not for Nadal, Federer may have won many more majors. The muscular left-hander has beaten Federer in six of their eight Grand Slam final meetings and has a 23-11 record overall, including big victories in Australia in the 2009 final and in the semifinals in 2012 and ’14. But he recognizes the Swiss star as the undisputed most successful player in the modern game.

“What happens on the other side of the draw, I think is great for tennis that Roger is there again after an injury, after a lot of people talk about always the same things, that probably he will never be back,” Nadal said. “The real thing is that he’s back and he’s probably ready to win again, fighting again to win a major. And that’s good for the fans because Roger is a legend of our sport.

“I am happy to be there, too. I am focused on my semifinals.”

Nadal leads Djokovic, Murray, Thiem on French Open odds

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The overarching presence of Rafael Nadal, who has won a record nine times at Roland Garros, has inflated prices on the other top men at the French Open.

Nadal is listed as a better than even money -125 favorite on the French Open men’s champion board at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The Spaniard has won 17 of 18 matches on clay this year and will not have to worry about longtime nemesis Roger Federer, who’s saving himself for the grass and hard courts. The event begins in Paris on Sunday.

While Nadal is undoubtedly the most consistent clay-court player in the world, many threats loom. Novak Djokovic (+300) might be ready to come out of his lull now that he has swapped out his support staff, bringing on Andre Agassi as a personal coach. Nadal and Djokovic are on the same side of the draw, so either would benefit if the other falls prey to an upset.

Dominic Thiem (+900) could also be undervalued, given that he defeated Nadal in the Italian Open, one of the tune-ups for the French.

Top seed Andy Murray (+900) has not won an event on clay this season and his place on the tennis betting lines might reflect the notion that some bettors will always go for a big name with a track record of winning Grand Slams. In terms of someone who is coming into the tournament playing well, Stan Wawrinka (+1000) has had an impressive run at the Geneva Open after having so-so output for most of the clay-court season. Wawrinka is also a recent champion, having won in 2015.

It seems like it is just a matter of when 20-year-old Alexander Zverev (+1400) will win his first Grand Slam singles title. Zverev turned heads when he extended Nadal to five sets in a third-round defeat at the Australian Open in January, and he defeated Djokovic in the Italian Open final to become the youngest player in 10 years to win an ATP Masters event.

As far as the women’s champion board goes, Simona Halep (+450) has top odds but is battling an ankle injury. World No. 1 Angelique Kerber (+1600) has also been inconsistent throughout the season. Young Ukrainian Elina Svitolina (+700) is an intriguing possibility by virtue of her results (four singles titles already in 2017) and her strong return game, since the soft clay at Roland Garros dictates having longer rallies.

Garbine Muguruza (+900) is the defending champion, but it’s a little glaring that she has not reached a Grand Slam semifinal in three tries since that 2016 breakthrough.

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.”