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Djokovic under threat from Murray heading into Paris Masters

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PARIS — Novak Djokovic heads into the Paris Masters with his No. 1 ranking under serious threat from Andy Murray, and in the rare position of being second favorite.

Djokovic is looking to win the tournament for the fourth straight year and fifth time overall. But he has been in erratic form over the past few months and is not playing with the confidence he showed here last year, when he crushed Murray 6-2, 6-4 in the final.

On current form Murray has the edge, and the second-ranked Scot can overtake Djokovic if he wins and the Serb doesn’t reach the final.

“You’ve got to give (Murray) credit for what he’s done in the last three or four months, the second part of the year is quite incredible,” Djokovic told reporters Sunday on the eve of the tournament. “He’s playing maybe the best tennis he’s ever played, very consistent, very strong. He definitely deserves to be in the position of being No. 1 at the end of the year. But that doesn’t just depend on him.”

Djokovic guarantees to keep No. 1 if he reaches the final, and Murray is not overly optimistic of knocking him off his perch.

“Obviously he could win the event and, if I lose in the first round, then I am a long way from being No. 1,” said Murray, who trails Djokovic 10-24 in career matches. “I’ve never won (the Paris Masters) before, so to just expect that you’re going to win the tournament would be silly.”

Murray won the Erste Bank Open in Vienna on Sunday for his third straight tournament win and career-high seventh of the year.

“In some other years, a year like this would easily (have) been enough to be No. 1 in the world,” Murray said. “But I am obviously getting closer.”

Murray, who has a first-round bye, will start his tournament against Fernando Verdasco or Feliciano Lopez.

Like Murray, Djokovic also has seven titles this year, matching his tally from 2013 and 2014, but will fall short of the 11 he won in an utterly dominant 2015.

The 29-year-old Djokovic owns a record 30 Masters titles. He is a 12-time Grand Slam champion and has won all four majors.

But after winning the elusive French Open for the first time in June, his form evaporated.

“Winning the French Open brought a lot of joy to me, but on the other hand has taken away a lot from me,” he said. “I felt a little bit exhausted, I must say, and maybe less motivated. So I had to rediscover that feeling of being on the court and pushing myself.”

He lost in the third round at Wimbledon to American Sam Querrey and in the first round to Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina at the Olympic Games.

Although Djokovic won the first set in the U.S. Open final, Stan Wawrinka rallied to beat him.

At the Shanghai Masters two weeks ago, Djokovic lost 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals to Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, an opponent he had beaten in five previous meetings.

“The last couple of months were not easy,” Djokovic said. “Mentally I just had to redefine my goals, things that are happening on and off the court.”

Djokovic clearly needed to gather his thoughts.

“It’s important to take time,” he said. “Really understand what the next step is going to be, professionally, privately.”

He feels much better now.

“I feel great and rejuvenated, very happy to be back in the city where I have wonderful memories,” he said. “It gives me a lot of emotions and butterflies in my stomach when I think about the last time I was here.”

Djokovic, who also won here in 2009, faces either Nicolas Almagro of Spain or Gilles Muller of Luxembourg in the second round.

Milos Raonic, who also has a first-round bye, is still feeling the effects of ankle injury that forced him to withdraw ahead of his China Open semifinal three weeks ago.

“It’s a partial tear,” said the big-serving Canadian. “It’s still a little bit of an issue … I tape it up to limit how much my ankle can move.”

Associated Press writer Eric Willemsen in Vienna contributed to this report.

Nadal-Djokovic semifinal suspended after 3rd set

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LONDON (AP) It was the kind of tennis that Wimbledon’s Centre Court crowd would gladly have watched all night long.

The show being put on by Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal was so good it could have been an instant classic had they been able to finish their semifinal before the tournament’s 11 p.m. curfew.

Instead, the two players – and a disappointed audience – were sent home after the third set on Friday with Djokovic leading 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9) following a tense tiebreaker that had more entertaining rallies than some entire matches.

The two players didn’t even get onto the court until after 8 p.m. because of an earlier marathon semifinal won by Kevin Anderson and when Djokovic converted his second set point in the tiebreaker – having saved three of Nadal’s – the clock had ticked a couple of minutes past 11. That left organizers no choice but to call it a night, although the announcement from the chair umpire led to a scattering of boos from some fans who clearly wanted more.

Most of them will have to watch the rest on TV.

The match will resume at 1 p.m. local time on Saturday, before the women’s final between Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber. At stake is a place in Sunday’s men’s final against the man who was partly at fault for keeping Nadal and Djokovic out there so late. Anderson’s win over John Isner lasted 6 + hours and went to 26-24 in the fifth set.

Djokovic-Nadal had clearly been the headline act of the day – they have five Wimbledon titles between them and met in the 2011 final while Anderson and Isner had never made the semifinals before – and their tennis was at another level from the earlier match. Even Anderson said he could feel during his match that the crowd would rather be watching the next one.

“They’ve paid to see two matches, and they came pretty close to only seeing one match,” Anderson said. “I can feel the crowd (get) pretty antsy for us to get off the court. They’ve been watching us for over six hours.”

While Anderson-Isner was mostly a serving duel with a few longer rallies thrown in, Djokovic and Nadal repeatedly slugged it out from the baseline, chasing each other around the court and coming up with spectacular winners from every corner.

Many of the best points came in the tiebreaker, including a 23-shot rally that Nadal finished off with a forehand half-volley drop shot to set up his first set point.

It was one of three successful drop shots from the Spaniard in the tiebreaker alone, but Djokovic answered with one of his own to save the second set point at 7-6.

He eventually went up 10-9 with the help of a backhand passing shot and an errant shot into the net by Nadal brought the entertainment to an end – for now.

It led to the unusual situation of both players leaving the court to a huge ovation – and applauding the fans in return – but without there being a clear winner or loser.

To be continued.

Former No. 1 Kerber tops Ostapenko; into second Wimbledon final

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LONDON – It was clear right from the opening game of Angelique Kerber’s Wimbledon semifinal how things were going to go. She was not going to dictate or control much.

She was, instead, going to employ spectacular defense and solid, steady play, while letting her opponent, Jelena Ostapenko, be the one to determine the outcomes of nearly every point.

It worked. The 11th-seeded Kerber reached her second final at the All England Club by avoiding too many mistakes and using a seven-game run to seize control for a 6-3, 6-3 victory over the 12th-seeded Ostapenko on Thursday.

“These are the matches I was working for as a young kid,” Kerber said, “and to stand here again in the final at Wimbledon is great.”

Kerber is a former No. 1 and a two-time major champion, both coming in 2016 at the Australian Open and U.S. Open. That was also the year the German was the runner-up at Wimbledon, losing to Serena Williams in the title match.

She could find herself up against Williams yet again: The 36-year-old American was scheduled to face No. 13 Julia Goerges of Germany in Thursday’s second semifinal on Centre Court.

Williams took a 19-match Wimbledon winning streak into the day. She won the grass-court tournament the last two times she played it, in 2015 and 2016, before missing it last year while pregnant. Williams gave birth to a daughter in September.

The left-handed Kerber was mainly a passive participant in the early going against Ostapenko. That first game consisted of eight points: Three were unforced errors by Ostapenko, including a double-fault to begin the proceedings; the other five were winners by her, including a 100 mph ace to close the hold.

Five games in, Ostapenko led 3-2, and the numbers were still tilted toward her. She had 14 winners and 10 unforced errors, while Kerber had three winners and – this was key – zero unforced errors.

There were no drawn-out points in the early going, no lengthy baseline exchanges, essentially because Ostapenko wouldn’t allow it. The Latvian plays an aggressive brand of first-strike tennis that carried her to the 2017 French Open title as an unseeded 20-year-old.

Kerber, in contrast, bides her time, working the back of the court to get everything back over the net, often kneeling to get low enough to reach shots.

Eventually, Kerber’s style ruled the day. She went on a half-hour run in which she took the last four games of the first set and took a 3-0 lead in the second. Ostapenko’s strokes were missing and she grew increasingly frustrated, slapping a thigh after a miss or leaning forward and putting her hands on her knees after others. By the time she flubbed a backhand while falling behind 5-1 in the second, she dropped her racket and screamed.

It took Kerber two tries to serve out the victory, getting broken to 5-2. But unlike in the quarterfinals, when she needed seven match points to win, this time it required only two, with the match ending – fittingly enough – on a forehand by Ostapenko that sailed wide.

The final tally told the story: Ostapenko had far more winners, 30-10, but also far more unforced errors, 36-7.