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No. 1 Nadal remains on track for first Paris Masters title

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PARIS (AP) Rafael Nadal remains on track for an elusive Paris Masters title after beating Pablo Cuevas 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3 to reach the quarterfinals on Thursday.

He has not reached the final since losing to David Nalbandian in his first appearance 10 years ago. Nadal improved to 4-1 overall against Cuevas and next plays Serbian qualifier Filip Krajinovic for the first time.

“He had a very successful season, winning a lot of challengers, and now he’s playing well on the tour,” Nadal said of Krajinovic. “When you’re winning a lot of matches you’re in a good dynamic.”

Cuevas competed well in spells against a nervy Nadal, who was erratic on serve and made countless unforced errors in a gritty contest.

One of the most glaring came at 5-5 in the second-set tiebreaker, when Nadal hit an easy forehand into the net to give Cuevas a set point. After a brief rally, Nadal hit a backhand long and Cuevas leveled the match.

Nadal had some strapping under his right knee before the deciding set, then raced into a 3-0 lead before the jitters came back.

“It’s not the moment to talk much about the knee,” he said. He also was elusive about whether it might prevent him from playing in the season-ending ATP Finals next week in London.

“Anything can happen in one week and a half,” Nadal said. “But if nothing strange happens then I’m going to be there.”

Nadal was not moving with his customary speed around court in the third set but held comfortably enough for 5-2. He clinched victory on his first match point when Cuevas sent a return wide.

Nadal is guaranteed to finish the year with the top ranking for the fourth time. A maiden victory here would give him a record 31 Masters titles, one more than Novak Djokovic.

In the late match, No. 3 Marin Cilic faced No. 14 Roberto Bautista Agut.

Earlier in the third round, Juan Martin del Potro moved closer to securing the last spot for the finals by beating Robin Haase 7-5, 6-4.

Del Potro, who lost to Roger Federer on Sunday in the Swiss Indoors final, is in 10th place in the race to qualify for the tournament. Only the top eight players will compete in London and there is one place left, to be taken in Paris.

“I would love to reach London once again. It could be a fantastic moment for me,” said del Potro, who was way back in 47th place in the race before the U.S. Open. “I’m excited to keep improving for this kind of surprise.”

Del Potro has a tough challenge next, against big-serving American John Isner.

The ninth-seeded Isner, last year’s runner-up to Andy Murray, hit 25 aces as he beat sixth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria 7-6 (10), 5-7, 7-6 (3).

Seventh-seeded David Goffin of Belgium was through to the finals in London, despite a surprise loss to unseeded Julien Benneteau 6-3, 6-3. The Frenchman reached the quarters of a Masters for the first time since Shanghai in 2014 in his final tournament before retiring.

Goffin will have waited nervously on the result of Frenchman Lucas Pouille’s result against Jack Sock. But Pouille’s 7-6 (6), 6-3 loss to the American sent him through, at Pouille’s expense, making him the first Belgian to qualify for the season finale.

“I would have preferred to have qualified by winning and Lucas is a friend,” Goffin said. “But I am still so happy to have qualified.”

Dominic Thiem went out early again, falling to Fernando Verdasco 6-4, 6-4.

Since losing to Del Potro in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, the fifth-seeded Austrian has won only two matches in five tournaments.

Verdasco next plays Sock. Krajinovic advanced with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 win against Nicolas Mahut.

Keys sends U.S. into second straight Fed Cup final

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AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — 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.