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Serena opens up about engagement after reaching quarterfinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia — For three rounds and more than a week, Serena Williams wanted to keep all the focus on her primary objective in Australia.

She hasn’t worn an engagement ring at the Australian Open, and hasn’t really wanted to elaborate much on the marriage proposal from Alexis Ohanian – which she made public late last month by posting a poem on news website Reddit.

The six-time Australian Open champion is in Melbourne aiming for an Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam title. Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, has been at her matches.

After her toughest match at the tournament this year, a 7-5, 6-4 win over No. 16-seeded Barbora Strycova on Monday, she was relaxed enough to reflect on her engagement. She’d just reached the Australian Open quarterfinals for the 11th time, and said she had nothing to lose after struggling with her misfiring serve – she was broken four times, including her first two service games – and making 46 unforced errors.

The 35-year-old Williams was asked, again, about her engagement in a post-match news conference – this time by an Italian journalist who wanted to clarify the reference to Rome in her poem.

“What did I say? I said I was whisked away to Rome?” she said, explaining how Ohanian took her back to where they first met to propose.

Were they introduced, or was it happenstance?

“Literally by chance. It was just — I was sitting down, and he sat next to me,” Williams said. “Yeah, that doesn’t happen anymore, right?

“I live in a movie and in a fairytale in my mind, so I guess eventually it was bound to happen.”

Still, she’s not planning the wedding just yet. As she said to all previous questions about the engagement, she’s here to win another title. With top-seeded Angelique Kerber already out, she also has the chance to regain the No. 1 ranking.

Next up, she’ll face 2016 semifinalist Johanna Konta, who beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-1, 6-4 to make it fourth-round victories over the Russian in back-to-back years.

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni was an emerging talent when Serena and Venus Williams were first making an impact, reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1999 when she was 17. After a long, difficult time off the tour, she has returned to the quarterfinals of a major for the first time since.

Lucic-Baroni beat American qualifier Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-2 and will next play U.S. Open finalist Karolina Pliskova, who had a 6-3, 6-3 win over Daria Gavrilova.

Whatever comes of it, the 34-year-old Lucic-Baroni said she’d make the most of the moment.

“I felt kind of a little bit of unfinished business,” she said. “I still wanted to play on a stage like this … Come out, play, have these wins, be in a quarterfinal of a Slam.”

Rafael Nadal is coming back from two months off to rest his injured left wrist, and was delighted to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the 30th time with his 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win over Gael Monfils. It was Nadal’s first win over a top-10 player at a Grand Slam since his French Open victory in 2014 – the last of his 14 major titles.

“Being in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam after couple of years not being there is very special for me,” said Nadal, who last progressed this far at the 2015 French Open.

Nadal went up a break early in the first two sets, had his chances in the third before Monfils rallied, and then traded breaks in the fourth before breaking the acrobatic Frenchman in the last game to win. Overall, he converted six of 17 break-point chances.

He next plays third-ranked Milos Raonic, the Wimbledon finalist and highest-ranked man still in the tournament after upset losses for top-ranked Andy Murray and defending champion Novak Djokovic.

No. 15 Grigor Dimitrov closed with an ace to hold off wild-card entry Denis Istomin, who upset Djokovic in the third round, 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2, 6-1. The Bulgarian will next play No. 11 David Goffin.

Raonic had a 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win over No. 13 Roberto Bautista Agut, hitting 33 aces and 75 winners. But he also had nine double-faults and 55 unforced errors, and didn’t really get on a roll until after spiking his racket into the court in frustration in the third set.

The Canadian is conscious he is the highest-ranked player still in the draw, but also of what lies ahead.

“It sort of crosses your mind,” Raonic said. “But it’s very insignificant because there’s a lot for me to even get past that point where it would have been to play potentially against those guys. I’m pretty intent on staying in that moment.”

That’s something Williams is counting on, too.

“I feel like it was really good for me to win on probably not my best day,” Williams said of her wayward serve. “Sometimes you rely on one shot and if it goes off, and then, like, what happens now?

“It was really good for me to almost lose that so I know my other game is going pretty good, too.”

John Isner advances to final on Newport’s hot grass courts

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NEWPORT, R.I. — Top-seeded John Isner overcame extremely hot conditions and a first-set tiebreaker loss to beat fourth-seeded Ugo Humbert of France 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3 on Saturday and advance to the Hall of Fame Open final.

The 34-year-old American will face Alexander Bublik, a 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-4 winner over Marcel Granollers of Spain. The 22-year-old Bublik, from Kazakhstan, reached his first career ATP final.

The matches were played before induction ceremonies for the 2019 class of Li Na from China, Mary Pierce of France, and Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

Playing in a feel-like temperature in the 90s, Isner, ranked 15th in the world coming into the week, broke in the second game of the final set – the first break of the match – en route to his fourth final on Newport’s grass courts. He won in 2011, `12 and ’17.

“The length of the match is fine. That’s what happens, especially with matches like mine,” the big-serving Isner said. “It’s really hot and humid and takes a lot (out) of you. To be honest, I don’t feel really great right now.”

Isner is into his 28th ATP final.

In a match that lasted 2 hours, 44 minutes, started in sunshine and ended with shadows creeping nearly halfway across the court, Isner had two aces in the final game to go up 40-0.

He hit a forehand winner at the net and pumped his fist when it ended.

Isner hit a forehand winner down the line to win the second-set tiebreaker and force the deciding set.

“That was a big shot,” he said. “I always say when I win the second set, I’m going to win the match.”

Bublik broke in the fifth game of the final set to take control of his match.

Just before he closed it out, an elderly female fan, seated courtside in the sun, was carried out on a chair by two men with ushers helping. The feel-like temperature at the time was in the upper 90s with the sun beating down on the court and some spectators.

“It’s hot,” said Bublik when asked about the conditions during a post-match interview on the court. “I’m just glad I won a match.”

The stadium seating and courtside seats – both located in the sun and usually at least about three-quarters full on induction day – had less than a hundred people seated for both semifinals.

Li Na’s journey to stretch from China to Hall of Fame

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NEW YORK — Li Na remembers first watching a tennis match on TV, drawn to the unforgettable style of one of the players.

Andre Agassi had long hair, an earring and wore denim shorts, and made an instant fan in China.

“Andre Agassi is my role model,” Li said.

Li went on to become one herself.

The first player from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles title, she will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this weekend, celebrated not only for her skills on the court but for her contribution to the growth of the sport in her country.

“She’s like an icon in China. She’s a huge superstar,” said Mike Silverman, the director of sport for New York’s City Parks Foundation.

Li conducted a clinic with children from the organization on Thursday and her influence was obvious. Many of the young players were Asian, including one teenage boy Silverman thinks is good enough to get a college scholarship. They were probably too young to remember much of her career – she retired in 2014 because of knee problems – but her impact didn’t end when her playing days did.

“There’s no question that Li Na, when she was playing and even now, tennis in China has never been the same since she won the French Open,” Silverman said. “It changed everything.”

That was in 2011, when more than 116 million people in China watched the final. Li added a second major title in 2014 at the Australian Open after twice losing in its final, rose to No. 2 in the WTA rankings and earned more than 500 singles wins.

“At least I always try my best in tennis on the court,” Li said. “If you try everything I think one day for sure there will be payback.”

The mother of two children is a little nervous about the induction ceremony in Newport, Rhode Island, as she tries to put together her thoughts in English. But perhaps she can take a lesson from something else she admired about Agassi.

“He never cared about what other people say, he just did his own,” said Li, who is joined in this year’s class by fellow two-time Grand Slam singles champions Mary Pierce of France and Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia.

Li said she can see the growth of tennis in China, where the WTA Finals will be played in Shenzhen and which got another event on the tour’s calendar this year when the former Connecticut Open was moved to Zhengzhou.

“It’s not only good for the athletes, it’s also good for the fans to have less traveling,” Li said. “They can see a high-level tournament in China.”

Fans can see plenty of them, as there are nine women’s tournaments in China after the U.S. Open. The country may not have a long tennis history, but Li thinks it will continue to get bigger.

“For me, I think China tennis is still young,” she said. “They can have a lot of time to grow up.”