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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.

6-time champ Djokovic loses at Miami Open to Benoit Paire

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (AP) Novak Djokovic’s 16-match Key Biscayne winning streak ended, and his struggle to overcome a bothersome right elbow continued.

Djokovic lasted barely an hour at a tournament he has won six times, losing his opening match Friday in the Miami Open to Benoit Paire, 6-3, 6-4.

The defeat was Djokovic’s third in a row. He returned from a six-month injury absence at the Australian Open and lost in the fourth round, and was upset two weeks ago at Indian Wells by Taro Daniel, a 109th-ranked qualifier.

Against the 47th-ranked Paire, Djokovic dropped serve four times, returned poorly and had difficulty anticipating his crafty opponent’s drop shots.

In women’s play, Naomi Osaka’s breakthrough winning streak ended with a loss to No. 4-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-2. Osaka said began feeling ill before the match but didn’t want to retire after upsetting eight-time champion Serena Williams in the first round.

The 20-year-old Osaka is ranked a career-high 22nd and won her first career title last week at Indian Wells.

Djokovic sat out the last half of 2017 because of problems with his racket-swinging arm, saying it had been bothering him for more than a year. He was sidelined again after this year’s Australian Open and said he had a “small medical intervention” on his elbow.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion didn’t seem to favor it against Paire, but his shots lacked their usually snap and sometimes were awkwardly struck, including the last two on match point.

In the first set Djokovic served with a chance to reach 5-all, but from 40-0 he lost five consecutive points and the set. Another dismal stretch came when he was broken at love in the final game of the match.

The loss was Djokovic’s first at Key Biscayne since 2013. He missed last year’s Miami Open but won the title three consecutive years in 2014-16.

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Top-ranked Halep wins tough 3-setter in Miami

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (AP) Top-ranked Simona Halep of Romania struggled to post a 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 second-round win over French lucky loser Oceane Dodin at the Miami Open on Thursday.

In the first career meeting between the players, Halep allowed the 98th-ranked Dodin to break her serve on six of seven opportunities she presented in the match, which lasted more than two hours.

Halep broke Dodin’s serve for the seventh time at 4-4 in the third set before closing it out.

Halep played in her third career Grand Slam final at the Australian Open in January, but has yet to secure a Grand Slam trophy.

Halep’s best Miami Open was reaching the 2015 semifinals.

Also Thursday, former No. 1 Angelique Kerber of Germany advanced to the third round with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Johanna Larsson of Sweden.

Kerber is 19-4 this year and has reached at least the quarterfinals of all five tournaments she’s played.

Kerber, the 2016 Australian Open and U.S. Open champion, won her first tournament since that U.S. Open at Sydney in January. She also reached the Australian Open semifinals.