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Nadal edges Dimitrov to set up title match against Federer

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal has fended off Grigor Dimitrov in five long sets to set up a vintage title match against Roger Federer at the Australian Open, where every singles finalist is aged 30 or over.

Nadal completed the 30-plus finals quartet Friday night when he repelled Dimitrov 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4 in the energy-sapping, 4-hour, 56-minute semifinal.

Federer, 35, and the Williams sisters — 36-year-old Venus and 35-year-old Serena — had clinched their spots in the finals on Throwback Thursday.

With Federer and Nadal both returning from injuries, and neither having won a major since mid-2014, a ninth Grand Slam final between two of the previously most dominant men in the sport was considered an extreme long shot at Melbourne Park.

Nadal, returning from a couple of months off to rest his injured left wrist after an up-and-down 2016 that started with a shocking first-round exit in Australia, was ranked No. 9.

Federer, off for six months with an injured left knee, was ranked No. 17.

Together, they’ve won 31 Grand Slam titles. On Sunday, Federer will be aiming to extend his men’s record to 18. Nadal will be hoping to cut the gap and move into outright second on the all-time list by winning his 15th.

Federer loves tennis, and most likely would have been watching Friday night’s match at some point as a spectacle.

Nadal had to endure it.

“Grigor was playing unbelievable. It was a great match. I feel very happy to be part of it, I enjoyed it a lot,” he said. “To qualify for the final in a match like this means a lot to me.”

Against the 25-year-old Dimitrov, dubbed ‘Baby Fed’ for the similarities he has with Federer’s style, Nadal showed signs of the brute strength and determination that carried him to the top of the rankings for 141 weeks in total from the day after winning gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — after spending 160 consecutive weeks at No. 2 behind Federer.

Dimitrov won the Brisbane International title earlier in the month, where Nadal was ousted in the quarterfinals, and was playing his second major semifinal. He also had a 1-7 record against Nadal heading into the match.

But he hit 20 aces, moved with precision, broke Nadal’s serve four times, and pounded the Spaniard with 79 winners.

After clinching his 21st win in 24 major semifinals, Nadal dropped to the court and lay face down for several seconds before getting up and embracing Dimitrov at the net.

It will be the first time in the Open era that all four singles finalists are older than 30.

Nadal leads Federer 23-11 in their career meetings, and is 9-2 in Grand Slam matches, including 6-2 in finals.

Federer, despite winning four titles in Australia, hasn’t beaten Nadal on Rod Laver Arena.

The Williams sisters practiced at Melbourne Park on Friday, the day ahead of the women’s final where Serena is aiming for an Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam title.

Venus Williams hadn’t been to a major final since losing the 2009 Wimbledon final to her sister, and won the last of her seven Grand Slam titles the previous year in southwest London with victory over her sibling.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova combined for their second Australian Open women’s doubles title with a 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-3 win over Andrea Hlavackova and China’s Peng Shuai.

Mattek-Sands and Safarova won the title here in 2015 — the first of their four major titles together — but were unable to defend in 2016 because of illness.

Victoria Azarenka misses direct entry for U.S. Open

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NEW YORK — Two-time U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka is ranked just below the cutoff for direct entry into the year’s last Grand Slam tournament.

Azarenka, a former No. 1 and twice the champion at the Australian Open, is No. 108 this week, seven spots outside of an automatic spot in the main draw.

The U.S. Tennis Association announced Wednesday that defending champion and top-ranked Rafael Nadal is one of six past male singles champions in the U.S. Open field, along with Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic. Another past title winner at Flushing Meadows, Stan Wawrinka, is ranked 199th this week.

The women’s winners with direct entry based on this week’s rankings are six-time champion Serena Williams, two-time champ Venus Williams, defending champ Sloane Stephens, Maria Sharapova and Samantha Stosur.

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.