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Keys completes U.S. sweep at U.S. Open

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NEW YORK — Madison Keys completed the clean sweep for American women, giving the host country all four U.S. Open semifinal spots for the first time in 36 years.

The 15th-seeded Keys served impeccably, controlled groundstroke exchanges from the baseline and was never in trouble during a 6-3, 6-3 victory over 418th-ranked qualifier Kaia Kanepi of Estonia that lasted only 69 minutes Wednesday night.

That came several hours after 20th-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe’s 7-6 (4), 6-3 elimination of 2016 runner-up and top-seeded Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic. Pliskova’s loss means she will be replaced at No. 1 in the rankings by Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza.

On Thursday, Keys faces Vandeweghe – with the winner reaching her first Grand Slam final – and No. 9 seed Venus Williams meets 83rd-ranked Sloane Stephens.

“We’re going to have four American women playing tomorrow, and that’s pretty awesome,” Keys told the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd, drawing a roar of approval.

Williams, whose seven major championships include the 2000 and 2001 U.S. Opens, and Stephens won quarterfinals Tuesday.

“American tennis,” said Stephens, seeking her debut in a major final, “is headed in the right direction.”

Not since 1981 have there been four American women in the final four at the U.S. Open, when the quartet was champion Tracy Austin, runner-up Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Barbara Potter. It hadn’t happened at any Grand Slam tournament since Wimbledon four years after that.

While Williams is 37, the oldest semifinalist in tournament history, the other members of the remaining trio are all in their 20s.

Keys, 22, had a rough start to 2017, missing the first two months after offseason surgery on her left wrist, and then had another procedure in June because of lingering pain. She was terrific against Kanepi, who sat with a white towel over her head during changeovers and dropped to 0-6 in Grand Slam quarterfinals.

Keys set the tone in the opening game: ace at 108 mph, ace at 105 mph, service winner at 117 mph, service winner at 112 mph. She wound up with eight aces, part of a 23-8 in total winners.

“This means the world to me,” said Keys, also a semifinalist at the 2015 Australian Open. “If someone told me this is where I would be, right before Wimbledon, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

The 25-year-old Vandeweghe, a niece of former NBA player and current league executive Kiki Vandeweghe, reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in January. She was the junior champion in New York in 2008, but never had success in the main draw until now: Of her previous eight appearances, half ended in the first round, half in the second.

One difference this time at the U.S. Open: Vandeweghe switched coaches midway through the season, teaming up in June with 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, who was nominated Tuesday for the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

The biggest way in which he’s helped, Vandeweghe said, “is channeling my intensity and tenacity out onto the court and putting it into a singular focus.”

How?

“You will have to ask him how he’s been able to do that. I don’t really know. Maybe it’s like some Jedi mind trick,” said Vandeweghe, who still did not hide her emotions on court, such as when she cracked a racket against the ground after a second consecutive double-fault in the opening set.

Regardless, pretty much everything Vandeweghe did worked against Pliskova, who leads the tour in aces in 2017 but found her top means of attacking opponents neutralized Wednesday.

Vandeweghe wound up with more aces, 5-2, and even produced three service winners.

“My best asset today was making her continually play on her service games. Whether it was not a great return that just got over the net, I know as a big server it’s really annoying when your serve keeps coming back,” Vandeweghe said. “I know that’s what my main focus was – just to get it back, not have her have a free point too easily.”

Pliskova did not exactly heap praise on her opponent afterward.

“Now I can say I was not playing my best tennis this tournament,” she said. “She can play much worse than she was playing today. I can play much better than I was playing today. I didn’t feel the best.”

Pliskova, who is from the Czech Republic, also offered this assessment of Vandeweghe: “She just (has) one plan, so either it’s working or it’s not.”

 

Keys sends US into second straight Fed Cup final

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AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France (AP) Defending champion United States will play in a second consecutive Fed Cup final after defeating France on Sunday.

Madison Keys secured the decisive point for the visiting team by beating Pauline Parmentier 7-6 (4), 6-4 in the second reverse singles. Keys’ victory gave the defending champions an unassailable 3-1 lead over France in their semifinal.

The 13th-ranked Keys, a late replacement for CoCo Vandeweghe, came back from a 4-1 deficit in the first set and made the decisive break in the ninth game of the second set with two consecutive winners.

“The girls did so well, both today and yesterday. We are very fortunate to have such a strong group and now we are looking forward to what is going to be a great final,” U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi said.

Parmentier fought hard until the end and saved two set points in the opener, but ultimately surrendered to Keys’ deep groundstrokes. The Frenchwoman had the chance to break back while trailing 5-4 in the second set but Keys used her big serve to win the next three points and seal the match.

The U.S. will play the Czech Republic in the final.

Earlier, Sloane Stephens had given a 2-1 lead to the U.S. with a 6-2, 6-0 thrashing of Kristina Mladenovic.

The U.S. Open champion delivered a ruthless display against the 20th-ranked Mladenovic and prevailed in 54 minutes. Stephens hit 16 winners and converted five of six break chances at the 6,700-capacity Arena Pays d’Aix on indoor clay.

“That was a really good one. You never anticipate a scoreline like the way it turned out but it was really solid,” Stephens said. She also won her first singles match on Saturday.

The Americans extended their winning record to 12-2 against the French.

The Czech Republic qualified for the final by defeating Germany 4-1 in Stuttgart.

Nadal beats Nishikori to win Monte Carlo Masters

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MONACO — Rafael Nadal won a record 31st Masters title after beating Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-2 in the Monte Carlo Masters final on Sunday.

Nadal also became the first man in the Open era to win the same title 11 times – 13 years after his first title here – and moved one ahead of rival Novak Djokovic for career Masters titles.

“It’s great to have this trophy in my hands again,” Nadal said.

It gave him a 76th title overall and ensured the Spaniard keeps his top ranking ahead of Roger Federer.

Nishikori was chasing a first Masters title, but the Japanese player took 11 minutes to hold for 1-1.

He got some brief hope, breaking Nadal with a superb passing shot at full stretch to lead 2-1, but meekly surrendered the next four games.

“I knew it was going to be tough even though I was up break,” said Nishikori, who complained of tiredness. “My legs were very heavy today, playing three sets (for) three days in a row (before the final). It wasn’t easy physically.”

The second set was a procession and Nadal won on his first match point with a stinging backhand winner.

Nadal’s celebration was brief and low key. He thrust both hands into the air, and then jogged over to offer Nishikori a sympathetic hug after beating him for the 10th time in 12 meetings.

Nishikori saved a set point with a sharp, angled volley at the net. But Nadal was in relentless mood and sealed it on his next chance with a crisp forehand winner.

“It’s not easy to describe when you are coming back from injury and you start the clay-court season in this way,” Nadal said.

Nishikori is still working his way back to form and full fitness, after missing the 2017 U.S. Open and this year’s Australian Open because of a torn tendon in his right wrist.

“It was a great week for me, I had an injury and couldn’t play for a long time,” said Nishikori, whose ranking has slipped to 36.

Nadal has not dropped a set in seven matches since coming back from a recurrence of a right hip injury that forced him to abandon during the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal against Marin Cilic.

The injury relapse subsequently forced him out of the Mexico Open and Masters tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami, but Nadal now looks back to his ruthless best on clay.

He has his sights firmly set on an 11th title at Barcelona next week and then an 11th French Open title at Roland Garros.