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Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal advance to Madrid Open’s third round

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MADRID — Defending champion Novak Djokovic recovered from a 3-0 deficit in the third set to defeat Nicolas Almagro 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 and reach the third round at the Madrid Open on Wednesday.

Djokovic rallied in the final set by breaking Almagro to go up 6-5 and served out to earn his 15th win of the season in over two hours. The victory left Djokovic on track to play a semifinal against four-time Madrid champion and home-crowd favorite Rafael Nadal, who struggled in a 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4 win over a Fabio Fognini of Italy in just under three hours.

“I haven’t played bad, I played really bad,” Nadal said. “It was uncomfortable.”

Nadal will play Nick Kyrgios of Australia, who defeated Ryan Harrison of the United States 6-3, 6-3. The second-seeded Djokovic will play veteran Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, who got past Gilles Simon of France 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (3).

Djokovic cruised in the first set by breaking the 76th-ranked Almagro three times. The Spanish wild card entrant rallied in front of the home crowd in the second set, saving all four break points he conceded and breaking at 4-5 to eventually extend the match.

Almagro was two points away from going up 4-2 in the final set but was not able to capitalize on his chances.

It was an important opening-round win for the second-ranked Djokovic as he tries to turn his season around and regain his form going into the French Open later this month.

“When you’re not winning too many matches, you have to build the confidence level,” Djokovic said. “So to win the matches like this definitely helps confidence.”

Djokovic won in Doha to start the season but never made it past the quarterfinals in the following four tournaments he played. In his first clay-court tournament, in Monte Carlo, Djokovic was eliminated by David Goffin in quarterfinals.

“I’m still finding my way to that consistency level and quality of tennis that I’m looking for,” Djokovic said. “I’m aware that I’m not playing at my best, but I’m definitely believing in myself and the process. Eventually the game will come together. I can take a lot of positives from today.”

Djokovic had his playing time diminished this year because of an elbow injury. Wednesday’s match was his first since splitting with longtime coach Marian Vajda.

Nadal had a tough start against Fognini, needing to save 10 of 12 break points conceded to the Italian in the first set alone. Fognini served for the set at 5-4 but was not able to capitalize on his chance. He threw his racket on the ground three times in a row after losing a decisive point in the tiebreaker.

It was the 11th straight win for Nadal, and his tour-leading 30th victory for the year. The fifth-ranked Spaniard has won 22 of his last 24 sets.

“Even though I played really badly, my attitude has been very positive,” Nadal said. “My attitude and the will to win today’s match was there. My level of tennis was not so high today, but I managed to make it through.”

Nadal was coming off titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona and had made it to three finals earlier in the year.

Fognini had three career wins over Nadal, including one in the 2015 U.S. Open, but had lost the last three in straight sets.

Fifth-seeded Milos Raonic of Canada defeated Gilles Muller of Luxemburg 6-4, 6-4, while sixth-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan recovered from a slow start to beat Diego Schwartzman of Argentina 1-6, 6-0, 6-4.

Nishikori, a finalist in Madrid in 2014, is playing in his first tournament since March. He withdrew from Barcelona last month because of a right wrist injury.

“In the beginning I wasn’t playing 100 percent,” Nishikori said. “But in the second and third (sets) I was feeling pretty good on the court, moving well, so I was very happy.”

Nishikori will play in the third round against Spaniard David Ferrer, who advanced after 10th-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France withdrew before the match because of a shoulder injury.

Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic defeated Robin Haase of the Netherlands 7-6 (5), 6-3,

In the women’s draw, third-seeded Simona Halep of Romania defeated 16th-seeded Samantha Stosur of Australia 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

2-time Wimbledon champ Kvitova wins return from knife attack

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PARIS — Sweat-soaked and still wearing her match outfit, Petra Kvitova was looking for someone to hug as she wandered into the players’ lounge in the French Open’s main stadium shortly after leaving the court Sunday.

She found her father, Jiri, and her brother, also Jiri, who greeted her with warm embraces and joyous kisses on the cheek. Kvitova’s family members rarely attend her tournaments, but this was different – “special” was the word she, and others, kept using.

Less than six months after a knife attack at her home, two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova was back competing, winning the first match of her comeback 6-3, 6-2 at Roland Garros against 86th-ranked Julia Boserup of the United States.

“I’m happy with the game, of course,” Kvitova said, “but I mean, it wasn’t really about the game today.”

Indeed, just being there under a cloud-filled sky at Court Philippe Chatrier was a triumph of sorts for Kvitova, who needed surgery on her left hand – the one she uses to hold her racket – after being stabbed by an intruder in the Czech Republic in late December. She was undecided until late last week whether to even try to play in the French Open.

“For us, it’s amazing. It’s miracle. Not even me or Petra thought she could be ready to come back so soon,” said her coach, Jiri Novak. “The prognosis was, let’s just say, not optimistic.”

During her on-court interview, Kvitova addressed Novak, her family and others in her guest box, saying: “Thank you for everything you helped me through (in) this difficult time.”

Several members of her entourage wore black T-shirts with white capital letters on the front that read, “Courage. Belief. Pojd.” That last word, which is the Czech equivalent of “Come on!” and was spelled with a red heart instead of the “O,” is often yelled by Kvitova to celebrate particularly good shots.

“The belief and the mind, the heart, it’s really important,” Kvitova said afterward. “So that’s … what we try to show everyone. I hope that it will be kind of inspiration for other people, as well.”

There were plenty of opportunities for her to clench a fist and scream “Pojd!” on Sunday against Boserup, who was making her debut in the French Open’s main draw and facing a lefty for the first time.

“She’s one of the nicest girls, and we are all really happy to see her back. After what she went through, it’s incredible,” Boserup said. “So it’s a victory for her to be back on court. It was really special.”

Kvitova began things with a quick forehand winner on the opening point.

“Amazing,” she said. “I surprised myself.”

Kvitova wound up compiling the match’s first 10 winners and finished with a 31-9 edge in that category. She took 15 of the first 20 points en route to a 3-0 lead and never really faced a whole lot of resistance, other than when she saved three break points – the only ones she had to deal with in the match – while ahead 3-1.

When it was over, Kvitova dropped her racket near the baseline and removed her blue headband. As she walked to the net for a handshake, her eyes welled with tears.

“We are happy that she is healthy. The hand is good – and also the head,” her brother Jiri said. “Mentally, she is back.”

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Venus Williams eases into French Open’s second round after beating Qiang Wang

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In a record 20th appearance at the French Open, Venus Williams eased into the second round with a straight sets victory over Qiang Wang of China.

Williams, who is seeded 10th, saved two set points to win 6-4, 7-6 (3).

The 36-year-old American will play Kurumi Nara of Japan in the next round.