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Nadal says he needs to peak to beat Dimitrov in semifinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Even with such vast experience on the big occasion of a Grand Slam, Rafael Nadal is nervous. His jitters aren’t eased by an impressive 7-1 head-to-head lead over Australian Open semifinal rival Grigor Dimitrov.

For a start, the 14-time major winner is aware Dimitrov broke through against him last time, in Beijing less than four months ago. And the emerging Bulgarian picked up where he left off late last year by winning the singles title in Brisbane three weeks ago in the perfect lead-up to the season’s first major championship.

“He’s a player that has an unbelievable talent, unbelievable potential,” Nadal said. “He started the season playing unbelievable.

“It’s going to be a very tough match for me. I hope for him, too. I’m going to try to play my best because I know he’s playing with high confidence.”

Nadal certainly won’t shy from another challenge and he draws strength from his own form that accounted for German teenager Alexander Zverev, Frenchman Gael Monfils and then big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic.

“I think all of them are top players. So that’s very important for me because that means that I’m competitive and playing well,” said Nadal, who won the Australian title in 2009. “Very happy that after a lot of work, to be in this round again. Is a special thing for me, especially here in Australia.”

Nadal reversed the recent loss to Raonic in Brisbane, where he was returning from a couple of months off to rest his injured left wrist. He went in with a more aggressive approach in Melbourne, taking the ball earlier to force errors as he surged to his 50th Grand Slam win at Melbourne Park and into his 24th major semifinal.

“Even moments he played so good from the baseline, I was there trying to stop his aggressive shots and don’t lose court, don’t lose meters behind the baseline. That’s an important change for me,” Nadal said. “I feel very happy for my attitude. I hit some great passing shots. That’s good news for me. When I make that happen, it’s because I’m playing well.”

No. 15-seeded Dimitrov conceded only nine games to 11th-seeded Belgian David Goffin in a clinical warm-up for his semifinal with Nadal.

He’s fit and fresh after rebuilding a ranking that slipped to 40 last July, his lowest standing for more than three years.

“I just kept doing the things that I was believing in,” he said, paying tribute to his coach Daniel Vallverdu and fitness trainer and others who “were there for me at the tough time.”

“I never felt that I was doing something wrong. I just felt that I was not playing and practicing well, not doing the right things. But with the right set of people, things started to slowly move forward for me. Now I think I’m just in a good place.”

Dimitrov said he had the talent and the preparation to reach his first Grand Slam final.

“I feel like I have all the tools to go further and my job isn’t over yet.” He said. “I’m ready to go the distance.

“Just going forward with the confidence that I have built up also from the previous tournament. With each match I’ve been feeling better and better – It just all comes pretty natural right now.”

Dimitrov had the luxury of watching the Nadal-Raonic duel Wednesday night while relaxing in his hotel room, staying in for the night to focus on his Open advance.

“Right now I’m enjoying the fight, that’s for sure. I’m enjoying running down every ball. When you feel physically good and you feel to kind of get into a match, that gives you a different perspective as soon as you get out on the court,” he said. “Whoever you play, you know you’re going to get your chance.”

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.