Djokovic’s French Open bid begins with Monte Carlo defense

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MONACO (AP) Novak Djokovic’s bid to finally master clay and win the elusive French Open title starts with his title defense at the Monte Carlo Masters, where Rafael Nadal once crushed the competition.

The top-ranked Serb has won 11 Grand Slams but the French Open continues to elude him, having lost the final to Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros last year and twice to Nadal.

“I don’t like the word `obsession’ because it doesn’t come from the right emotion,” Djokovic told reporters Sunday. “But of course being the only Grand Slam I haven’t won gives me even more incentive to give my best there this year.”

Few would bet against Djokovic winning in Paris given his red-hot form but part of his renowned discipline involves stopping from looking that far ahead.

“When you need to operate as a human machine, you need to do that only in the present moment and the present time,” said Djokovic, who sets aside time to perfect his inner balance. “Not Buddhism, specifically, but mindfulness, this holistic approach that allows me to maximize my being from every aspect. Not just physical but mental, emotional, spiritual. I try to be disciplined with all these different exercises that I do on a daily level.”

Nadal, who lost to Djokovic in the Monte Carlo semifinals last year, won eight straight titles here from 2005-12 until Djokovic ended the Spaniard’s run in the 2013 final.

Winning Monte Carlo was always the springboard that led to victory in Paris, and he thinks it will be tough to stop Djokovic doing the same.

Since beating Djokovic in the 2013 U.S. Open final, Nadal has lost 10 of their 11 meetings – the only win in that time coming when he beat Djokovic in the French Open final two years ago.

“He’s going to be the favorite for every tournament (until) somebody shows something different,” Nadal said Sunday with an air of inevitability. “He is (playing) with an unbelievable dynamic.”

Since 2015, Djokovic has reached 19 finals in 21 tournaments, winning 15 and losing four finals.

In late February, he lost to Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in the Dubai quarterfinals – where Djokovic retired with of an eye infection after losing the first set.

That leaves big-serving Croat Ivo Karolovic as the only other to beat him outside of a final in that time, winning a hard-fought quarterfinal on outdoor hard courts in Doha, Qatar, in January 2015.

Djokovic’s recent win at the Miami Masters was a record 28th in Masters – one more than Nadal – and saw him equal Andre Agassi’s six titles in Miami as well as clinching the Indian Wells-Miami double for a third successive year.

“From one side, yes, I am pleasantly surprised with what I have achieved in last two years,” Djokovic said. “From the other side, I’ve always expected myself to be at this level. Everybody peaks at different stages of their careers and for me it’s right now.”

Nadal has been swept away by the meteoric ascension of Djokovic, who is closing in on $100 million in career prize money.

The 28-year-old Djokovic, a year younger than Nadal, has 63 career titles. He is only four behind Nadal, who has yet to win one this year and won just three last year compared with 10 in 2013.

Djokovic leads Nadal 25-23 in their career head-to-heads; has a 23-22 lead over Roger Federer and a dominant 22-9 record against two-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray.

Djokovic did not drop a set in Miami and only dropped one set on his way to a second Monte Carlo success last year, against Czech Tomas Berdych in the final.

“What he’s achieving right now is just exceptional. It’s just the same as when Roger was at his peak,” Berdych said. “One season I think (Federer) lost three or four matches so it’s quite similar to Novak last year and like Nadal did one year. Within 10 years each of them took three years of that domination.”

Djokovic is in the same half of the draw as Federer here and has a bye to the second round – where he faces Czech Jiri Vesely or Russian Teymuraz Gabashvili.

Linette keeps getting better; into Australian Open semis

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Two days after advancing to her first Grand Slam tournament quarterfinal, unseeded Magda Linette went one better and is into the Australian Open semifinals.

The 30-year-old Linette beat Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 7-5, adding the former No. 1 to the list of top players she has beaten at Melbourne Park during this tournament.

Linette, who had lost seven of nine previous matches against Pliskova, had defeated Anett Kontaveit, Ekaterina Alexandrova and WTA Finals champion Caroline Garcia in successive rounds.

A player from Poland was favored to reach the latter stages of the tournament, but it was top-seeded Iga Swiatek that everyone would have expected – and not Linette.

“It’s so emotional I can’t really believe it,” Linette said. “I tried to stay composed and took my chances when I could.”

Linette will play No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka, who beat unseeded Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-2 in a later quarterfinal. The women’s semifinals are scheduled for Thursday night.

Vekic, who had 13 double faults against Sabalenka, had a succinct appraisal of her serve: “I mean, it was all over the place. But I think mostly in the net.”

The other women’s semifinalists were determined on Tuesday. Two-time former Australian champion Victoria Azarenka will play Wimbledon titleholder Elena Rybakina for a chance to play in Saturday night’s final. Rybakina beat Swiatek in the fourth round.

Later Wednesday, the remaining men’s semifinalists will be determined. Unseeded Americans Ben Shelton and Tommy Paul play before nine-time champion Novak Djokovic takes on Andrey Rublev.

Djokovic will be looking to qualify for his 44th Grand Slam semifinal and a win in that match on Friday would advance him on Sunday night to his 33rd major singles final.

The other men’s semifinal on Friday will see third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas play Karen Khachanov.

Rybakina rules in Australian Open quarterfinal vs. Ostapenko

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia – Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina advanced to the Australian Open semifinals with a 6-2, 6-4 win over former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

The match on Rod Laver Arena featured a rare rain delay of about 20 minutes while the roof was closed. Rybakina led 3-1 and was holding a break point before the delay. On return, Ostapenko saved the first break point, but Rybakina broke on her next opportunity to go up 4-1 and won the first set 6-2.

In the second set, Ostapenko was up a break but Rybakina leveled with a break of her own. It came on her first break point when Ostapenko had been unable to convert four in the previous game.

Rybakina, who beat top-seeded Iga Swiatek in the fourth round, set up match points with aces, both of which were saved by Ostapenko. But she clinched the match with another ace, her 11th of the match and a tournament-leading 35 overall.

“I was nervous in the last game, but I managed my emotions and played very well.” Rybakina said. “The conditions were different after the roof was closed. But it can happen here, you never know, on the morning one weather and later it changes.”

Rybakina will play the winner of the night quarterfinal between American Jessica Pegula, at No. 3 the highest women’s seed remaining, and two-time champion Victoria Azarenka.

In men’s quarterfinals, 22-year-old American Sebastian Korda played the next match at Rod Laver Arena against No. 18-seeded Karen Khachanov. In a night quarterfinal, third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas plays Jiri Lehecka. The winners of those matches will play each other in the semifinals on Friday.