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Djokovic upbeat despite yet another setback in Madrid

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MADRID (AP) Novak Djokovic remains optimistic despite yet another disappointing result in what has been a frustrating season.

Djokovic’s struggles continued with an overwhelming loss to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of the Madrid Open on Saturday, a result that extended his streak of five consecutive tournaments without an appearance in a final.

Still, the second-ranked Djokovic left Spain with reason to feel good about his game.

“It was a positive week, a positive experience,” he said. “I take more positives than negatives into the next week in Rome. As I go along, I hope to continue getting better and getting stronger. I felt like I was playing well throughout the week.”

He blamed his elimination mostly on Nadal’s good form.

“I could have played better,” Djokovic said. “But, again, I just had an opponent that was too good. I have to move on. Semifinals is a good result. Hopefully I’ll have another good result in Rome.”

Rome will be Djokovic’s last tournament before he defends his title at the French Open.

“It was really good to play in the semifinals of a big event, and to play against one of the top rivals I have in my life,” Djokovic said. “I haven’t had that feeling in months, so it’s great to feel that.”

Djokovic hadn’t made it to a semifinal since he won in Doha in the beginning of the season. He reached the last four in Madrid after Kei Nishikori withdrew before the quarterfinals because of an injury.

Djokovic, who missed some playing time this season because of an elbow injury, has won only 14 matches this year. Last year he was 31-2 after winning the title in Madrid, which was his fifth of the season at the time.

The disappointing straight-set loss to Nadal was his fifth defeat this year. He had won seven straight matches against the fifth-ranked Spaniard before Saturday’s semifinal, dating back to the 2014 French Open final.

“I felt comfortable hitting the ball the last few days, physically ready, mentally sharp as well. I was trying my best,” Djokovic said. “But it’s just one of these days where your opponent is just playing better than you, and you have to be able to say, `congratulations,’ and move on. He did get the better of me in most of the stats, most of the shots. But, you know, I have lots of good things to take out of this week.”

Among Djokovic’s losses this season was a second-round defeat to Denis Istomin at the Australian Open. He lost to Nick Kyrgios in the quarterfinals in Acapulco and in the Round of 16 in Indian Wells. And in his first clay-court tournament of the year, in Monte Carlo, Djokovic was eliminated by David Goffin in the quarterfinals.

“This drop in level for Djokovic has to do with his fight to be No. 1 and to win as many matches as possible,” Nadal said. “Let’s respect his level right now because it’s true that perhaps it’s not as high as it used to be, but I’m telling you, it’s been a lot of years, and I know because I’ve been in his skin, being up there every single week, being No. 1 every single week, it’s nearly impossible.”

The Madrid Open was Djokovic’s first tournament since he parted ways with longtime coach Marian Vajda and two other team members to try to regain his “winning spark on the court.”

“I’m just going to go along, and in the next three, four weeks maximum, I’ll make my decisions around that, about the team,” Djokovic 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.