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Djokovic, Nadal set up Madrid Open semifinal

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MADRID — Rafael Nadal set up a semifinal with Novak Djokovic after withstanding a tough challenge from David Goffin 7-6 (3), 6-2 at the Madrid Open on Friday.

Djokovic, the defending champion, advanced when Kei Nishikori withdrew before their quarterfinal because of a wrist injury.

“It’s going to be a very tough match against one of the best players in tennis history,” Nadal said. “I’ve been playing at a high level during many weeks. I know tomorrow is going to be a day that either I play really well or I’m not going to have many chances.”

Nadal hasn’t beaten Djokovic since the 2014 French Open final, losing the last seven matches against him.

On the women’s side, defending champion Simone Halep of Romania cruised past Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia 6-2, 6-3 to reach her third Madrid Open final. The third-seeded Halep, who lost the 2014 final to Maria Sharapova, will play Kristina Mladenovic of France.

Mladenovic made it to her fourth final of the year- and second consecutive – by defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia 6-4, 7-6 (4).

“I just want to go there and (play) my game, because if I do, I have a big chance to win,” Halep said.

In a meeting between the players with the most match wins this year, Nadal saved all five break points he faced against the 10th-ranked Goffin, and converted his chances in the second set to win his 13th straight match and tour-leading 32nd of the year.

Goffin, who has 27 victories, was trying to make it to his third final this season.

He saved all six break opportunities he conceded to Nadal in the first set, but the fifth-ranked Spaniard took control of the tiebreaker under the closed roof on center court.

Nadal, a four-time champion in Madrid, had an easier time in the second set after earning an early break, and closed out the match with another at the end.

“We had to hit very close to the line to win the points,” said Nadal, who is trying to win his third consecutive title after victories in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.

In another quarterfinal, Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay rallied to beat Alexander Zverev of Germany 3-6, 6-0, 6-4. Cuevas won one of the points of the tournament with a no-look winner with his back to the court after a lob shot by Zverev early in the second set.

The sixth-seeded Nishikori, a Madrid finalist in 2014, withdrew saying his wrist was “not 100 percent” and he didn’t want to risk a more serious injury.

Djokovic hasn’t played in the semifinals of any event since winning the title in Doha at the beginning of the year. He lost to Goffin in the quarterfinals in Monte Carlo, his first clay tournament of the season.

Nishikori, who beat Djokovic in the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals, was playing in his first tournament since March. He withdrew from the Barcelona Open last month because of the lingering wrist inflammation.

Nishikori said he will “take a couple of days off” and try to recover in time to play in Rome next week and then in the French Open at the end of the month.

“I cannot promise to play or pull out right now,” he said.

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.”

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

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.