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Serena, Sharapova to meet in Australian Open quarterfinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams is convinced that a loss makes her a better player. A really upsetting loss – like missing out on an oh-so-close calendar-year Grand Slam loss – may have her primed for an Australian Open quarterfinal against Maria Sharapova.

Williams and Sharapova have confirmed their quarterfinal date with straight sets on Sunday, ensuring a rematch between last year’s finalists at Melbourne Park.

Fifth-seeded Sharapova fired a career-high 21 aces and hit 58 winners in her 7-5, 7-5 win over Belinda Bencic in the first match of the day on Rod Laver Arena, converting her second match point with a successful challenge after her forehand was initially called long.

Six-time champion Williams followed it up with a 55-minute, 6-2, 6-1 win over Margarita Gasparyan.

Williams has won 18 of her 20 matches against Sharapova, including the last 17.

Williams won 26 matches in a row at the majors last season, capturing the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles and reaching the semifinals at the U.S. Open before a stunning loss to Roberta Vinci ended her run for the season slam.

That’s the driving factor here.

“For my whole career I have been motivated by losses. So that’s just been my thing,” she said. “So each time I take a loss, I feel like I get better.”

Asked if her unbeaten run against Sharapova gave her extra confidence, the 21-time major winner said it didn’t matter who she was playing.

“I just feel like I’m really confident in my game right now, not against her or against any other opponent,” in particular, Williams said. “I’m just really looking at me right now, and I feel like if I can just continue to play well, then it could be good.”

Margaret Court, the Australian great who won 24 Grand Slam singles titles and has a court named in her honor at Melbourne Park, was in the crowd watching Williams.

Under bright sunshine after the roof was opened following morning rain, Williams was broken in the opening game – her only point coming from an ace – but quickly found her groove and won 12 of the next 14.

“Well, gosh, I didn’t know she was here, I feel honored to be able to play in front of her,” Williams said when told Court was in the stands, then looked up to the VIP area and added: “Thank you.”

“Obviously 24 is close, but yet it’s so far away,” Williams said of Court’s career record.

Williams was keeping an eye on an earlier match, too, noting that Sharapova “had a really good win today.”

Sharapova won consecutive matches against Williams in 2004 at Wimbledon and the season-ending championships, but hasn’t won since. It’s a statistic she tries to block from her mind.

“It’s not like I think about what I can do worse. You’re always trying to improve,” she said. “I got myself into the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam. There is no reason I shouldn’t be looking to improve and to getting my game in a better position than any other previous round. It’s only going to be tougher, especially against Serena.

“I look forward to playing the best in the world and that’s what she’s proven in the last year.”

Sharapova, the 2008 champion and four-time finalist, had to play under an indoor match because play started while it was lightly raining, but the roof was open for Williams.

Kei Nishikori was the first male player through to the quarterfinals, beating No. 9-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in front of a partisan crowd filled with flag-waving Japanese fans.

The seventh-seeded Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open finalist, will next play the winner of the fourth-round match between five-time champion Novak Djokovic and No. 14-seeded Gilles Simon.

Benedetti wins 12th stage; Polanc takes Giro lead

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PINEROLO, Italy (AP) Cesare Benedetti won the 12th stage of the Giro d’Italia on Thursday for his first victory as a professional while Jan Polanc took the overall leader’s pink jersey from UAE Emirates teammate Valerio Conti.

Benedetti, an Italian with the Bora team who has been a support rider for his entire career, was part of an early breakaway then accelerated from a select group of riders in a sprint finish.

“I’ve worked a lot for the others in the past but today I got my opportunity,” Benedetti said. “I’m not (usually) a winner.”

Benedetti required 3 hours, 41 minutes to complete the 158-kilometer (98-mile) leg from Cuneo to Pinerolo, which featured one major climb and another shorter but steeper ascent just before the finish.

Damiano Caruso crossed second and Eddie Dunbar came third, each with the same time as Benedetti. Polanc, a Slovenian who was also in the breakaway, finished 25 seconds behind.

In the overall standings, Polanc leads Primoz Roglic by 4 minutes, 7 seconds. Vincenzo Nibali, one of the pre-race favorites, is fifth overall, 5:51 behind.

“It was a team tactic that I would go in the breakaway so we could have a better control over the race,” Polanc said. “It was also a way to keep the pink jersey in the team.”

Mikel Landa and Miguel Angel Lopez attacked on the first-category climb to Montoso and gained about 30 seconds on the other overall favorites.

Before the stage began, sprinters Caleb Ewan and Elia Viviani withdrew from the race. Ewan won two stages, including the 11th leg a day earlier, while Viviani posted three second-place finishes.

Stage 13 on Friday is one of the race’s toughest, with two category one climbs and one category ascent, along with an uphill finish at the end of the 196-kilometer leg from Pinerolo to Ceresole Reale.

The Giro ends June 2 in Verona.

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Tsonga rallies past qualifier to reach quarterfinals in Lyon

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LYON, France (AP) Former champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga rallied past Canadian qualifier Steven Diez on Wednesday to reach the quarterfinals and extend his perfect record at the Lyon Open.

Tsonga, the 2017 champion, came within two points of losing but finally prevailed 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3 on his sixth match point after 2 hours, 42 minutes.

The clay-court event serves as a warmup for the French Open, which starts Sunday in Paris.

“It was good for me to play a long match like this,” Tsonga said. “I haven’t played a match this long for a while. I am not playing my best level, but I am giving everything mentally and that gives me confidence.”

Tsonga will next take on top-seeded Nikoloz Basilashvili, who beat lucky loser Tristan Lamasine 7-5, 7-5.

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