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Murray beats Nadal, reaches Madrid Open final again

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MADRID (AP) Continuing to impress on clay ahead of the French Open, Andy Murray defeated Rafael Nadal 7-5, 6-4 to reach his second straight Madrid Open final on Saturday.

Murray saved 11 break points to win a rematch of last year’s final.

Murray needs to successfully defend his title on Sunday to avoid losing the No. 2 ranking to Roger Federer. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic played No. 6 Kei Nishikori in the other semifinal late Saturday.

Nadal had his chances but failed on the decisive points, falling short on his attempt to win a third consecutive title this season.

“In general, he was a little bit better than me, and we have to congratulate him for his victory and recognize that he has played better than me in the important moments,” Nadal said.

Murray became the first player to ever beat Nadal at the same clay tournament in consecutive years.

“Not loads of players have won against Rafa on clay throughout his career,” Murray said. “Very few in the last year for sure when he wasn’t playing his best. To beat him in Spain on a clay court is obviously a big, big challenge for any player. Very pleased to have beaten him this year.”

It was Murray’s seventh win in his last eight matches on clay, the surface he struggled on the most early in his career. He had lost four of the last five matches against Nadal.

“Big, big step for me from where I was four or five weeks ago,” Murray said. “I’m going back in the right direction again.”

It was Nadal’s first loss after 13 straight wins this year. The former No. 1 was trying to win his third consecutive title after triumphs in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Nadal also was looking to win a record 50th clay-court title in the Open era.

“Murray was not unbeatable today. It was an open match, an even match,” Nadal said. “I didn’t play my best level, but I didn’t play badly. I think I played a medium level, which was not enough to beat Murray today.”

Murray defeated the Spaniard in straight sets in 2015 for his first Masters title on clay, but the fifth-ranked Nadal beat Murray in three sets last month in the Monte Carlo semifinals.

“It was a better win for me this year than last year,” Murray said. “I didn’t think he played his best match in the final last year. Not saying he played his best tennis today, but he played better than last year.”

Nadal had the support of the home crowd but couldn’t capitalize on his numerous chances in a match that lasted 2 hours, 11 minutes.

Murray came up with big serves, including eight aces, when he needed them the most to keep Nadal from mounting a comeback.

Nadal had nine break points in the second set alone, converting only one. Nadal rallied from 5-2 down in the first set but lost four straight points while serving at 6-5 down, giving Murray the first set, which lasted more than an hour.

Nadal trailed again in the second set and got back on serve after saving a match point when Murray served for the match at 5-3, but it wasn’t enough after a poor final game on his own serve gave the Briton the win.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Federer survives scare to advance in Halle

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HALLE, Germany (AP) Defending champion Roger Federer survived two match points against Benoit Paire to reach the quarterfinals of the Gerry Weber Open with a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7) win on Thursday.

Paire rallied after losing the first set to take the second, and the Frenchman defended two match points at 6-5 in the decider to force a tiebreaker. Eight minutes later, it was a match point for the 48th-ranked Paire, and again when a mistake from Federer left it 7-6 in Paire’s favor.

But the top-ranked Swiss took the next three points to close the match in just under two hours at the grass-court tournament.

Federer extended his grass-court winning streak to 18 matches, including his titles in Stuttgart last week and at Halle and Wimbledon last year.

Federer skipped the entire clay-court season for the second year in a row and is now just four wins away from matching Jimmy Connors’ all-time record of 174 victories on grass.

Federer next faces Matthew Ebden of Australia, who upset former champion Philipp Kohlschreiber 4-6, 6-1, 6-2.

Also Thursday, Borna Coric defeated Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-4, 6-2.

The Croat next faces either Florian Mayer or Andreas Seppi.

Magdalena shows form on grass in Birmingham

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BIRMINGHAM, England — Magdalena Rybarikova, who climbed almost 90 places last year to reach a career-high No. 17 in March, showed she might rise even further after rallying against Kristina Mladenovic 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 Wednesday to advance to the quarterfinals in Birmingham.

The Slovak accelerated toward victory against the former top 10 player from France with an array of slice ground strokes, clever approaches and sharp volleys. The range of shots worked excellently on the lush surface at the grass-court Nature Valley Classic and helped her take control midway through the second set.

Rybarikova last year reached the Wimbledon semifinals. She is a former champion here, winning the title in 2009.

In the first round she beat third-seeded Karolina Pliskova for the loss of only five games but found it tougher against Mladenovic.

“I started to play very well,” Rybarikova said of her improvement from the fourth game of the second set against Mladenovic. “She served great to begin with and I struggled with my returns, but I kept fighting and my game improved a lot.

“I think I’d been a bit passive. The key was when I played more cross-court slices and drops and made an early break in the second set.

“That’s the way I am trying to play on grass. I am thankful that I have the game to do that. This court here really suits my game.”

At the changeover in the fifth game of the second set, Mladenovic’s morale appeared to plunge, and afterward her error ratio rose sharply with her standard dropping significantly.

The third set of a match which lasted nearly two hours took only 22 minutes, and long before the end the outcome had ceased to be in doubt.

Rybarikova next faces Slovenian qualifier Dalila Jakupovic, who on Tuesday overcame a difference in rankings of almost 100 places and saved four match points while beating seventh-seeded Elise Mertens of Belgium.

Jakupovic followed up Wednesday by getting past 18th-ranked Naomi Osaka of Japan, who recently beat four former top-ranked opponents. Osaka was forced to retired injured after losing the first set 6-3.