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Nadal says he needs to peak to beat Dimitrov in semifinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Even with such vast experience on the big occasion of a Grand Slam, Rafael Nadal is nervous. His jitters aren’t eased by an impressive 7-1 head-to-head lead over Australian Open semifinal rival Grigor Dimitrov.

For a start, the 14-time major winner is aware Dimitrov broke through against him last time, in Beijing less than four months ago. And the emerging Bulgarian picked up where he left off late last year by winning the singles title in Brisbane three weeks ago in the perfect lead-up to the season’s first major championship.

“He’s a player that has an unbelievable talent, unbelievable potential,” Nadal said. “He started the season playing unbelievable.

“It’s going to be a very tough match for me. I hope for him, too. I’m going to try to play my best because I know he’s playing with high confidence.”

Nadal certainly won’t shy from another challenge and he draws strength from his own form that accounted for German teenager Alexander Zverev, Frenchman Gael Monfils and then big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic.

“I think all of them are top players. So that’s very important for me because that means that I’m competitive and playing well,” said Nadal, who won the Australian title in 2009. “Very happy that after a lot of work, to be in this round again. Is a special thing for me, especially here in Australia.”

Nadal reversed the recent loss to Raonic in Brisbane, where he was returning from a couple of months off to rest his injured left wrist. He went in with a more aggressive approach in Melbourne, taking the ball earlier to force errors as he surged to his 50th Grand Slam win at Melbourne Park and into his 24th major semifinal.

“Even moments he played so good from the baseline, I was there trying to stop his aggressive shots and don’t lose court, don’t lose meters behind the baseline. That’s an important change for me,” Nadal said. “I feel very happy for my attitude. I hit some great passing shots. That’s good news for me. When I make that happen, it’s because I’m playing well.”

No. 15-seeded Dimitrov conceded only nine games to 11th-seeded Belgian David Goffin in a clinical warm-up for his semifinal with Nadal.

He’s fit and fresh after rebuilding a ranking that slipped to 40 last July, his lowest standing for more than three years.

“I just kept doing the things that I was believing in,” he said, paying tribute to his coach Daniel Vallverdu and fitness trainer and others who “were there for me at the tough time.”

“I never felt that I was doing something wrong. I just felt that I was not playing and practicing well, not doing the right things. But with the right set of people, things started to slowly move forward for me. Now I think I’m just in a good place.”

Dimitrov said he had the talent and the preparation to reach his first Grand Slam final.

“I feel like I have all the tools to go further and my job isn’t over yet.” He said. “I’m ready to go the distance.

“Just going forward with the confidence that I have built up also from the previous tournament. With each match I’ve been feeling better and better – It just all comes pretty natural right now.”

Dimitrov had the luxury of watching the Nadal-Raonic duel Wednesday night while relaxing in his hotel room, staying in for the night to focus on his Open advance.

“Right now I’m enjoying the fight, that’s for sure. I’m enjoying running down every ball. When you feel physically good and you feel to kind of get into a match, that gives you a different perspective as soon as you get out on the court,” he said. “Whoever you play, you know you’re going to get your chance.”

Andy Murray losses to Thiem in Barcelona Open semifinals

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BARCELONA, Spain — World No. 1 Andy Murray lost to Dominic Thiem of Austria 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in the Barcelona Open semifinals on Saturday.

Murray’s defeat came a week after he exited the third round at Monte Carlo. That loss prompted Murray to enter Barcelona to whip up some form for the French Open following a right elbow injury.

Nine-time winner Rafael Nadal played Horacio Zeballaos of Argentina in the other semifinal later Saturday.

Thiem started strong, breaking Murray’s first two service games before adding a third break en route to taking the first set.

The ninth-ranked Thiem had a break point in the second set, but Murray held serve and broke him back to even the match at a set apiece.

Murray was again in trouble at 4-2 down in the decisive set, and folded when he failed to successfully return Thiem’s deep lob on match point.

It was Thiem’s first win in three meetings against Murray.

Sharapova’s return ends in semis at Porsche Grand Prix

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STUTTGART, Germany — Maria Sharapova’s first tournament since her controversial return to tennis is over after losing to Kristina Mladenovic of France in the Porsche Grand Prix semifinals.

Mladenovic beat former top-ranked Sharapova 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 Saturday.

In her fourth match following a 15-month doping ban, the Russian was left to rue missing 13 of her 16 break-point opportunities as Mladenovic rallied to win in 2 hours, 38 minutes.

The 19th-ranked Mladenovic, who ousted two-time defending champion Angelique Kerber on Thursday, next plays the winner of the other semifinal between fourth-seeded Simona Halep and last year’s runner-up Laura Siegemund.

Five-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova, who tested positive for meldonium at last year’s Australian Open, had been given a wild card to enter the Stuttgart event after losing her ranking because of the ban.