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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.”

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.