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Andy Murray makes tepid return as he loses exhibition match

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Andy Murray made a tepid return to the court, losing a one-set match 6-2 to Roberto Bautista Agut in the United Arab Emirates exhibitions on Friday.

Murray, who has slipped to 16th in the rankings after ending last year as No. 1, wasn’t scheduled to play at the Abu Dhabi tournament. However, he filled in for Novak Djokovic, after the 12th-ranked Serb withdrew from his semifinal against Bautista Agut earlier in the day with a recurrence of pain in his right elbow.

Murray, who has been struggling to find full fitness following a right hip problem, was initially only in Abu Dhabi to practice before next month’s Australian Open.

He is also expecting to play in Brisbane, Australia next week.

The 30-year-old British player lost his first two service games and trailed 4-0 against the 20th-ranked Spaniard. In the seventh game, he held a service game lasting 12 minutes.

“Obviously I made a slow start and Roberto is one of the best players in the world,” Murray said. “When you haven’t competed for a while, it takes time to get up to that pace. I started to feel a bit better toward the end, but I need to keep improving for sure.”

Murray, a three-time Grand Slam winner, did not move around the court at his usual pace and his first serves were way below his best. He did have one ace late in the fifth game, in which he also executed an athletic lunge at the net to win a point.

What appeared to trouble Murray the most was retrieving shots on the run with his backhand. He sent a few returns into the net, and did not even go for a couple of shots. Even though he moved gingerly, it was understandable as he returned to training only last week.

“It was nice to be able to play,” a relieved-sounding Murray said. “I was just planning on stopping here for a couple of days on the way to Australia to get some practice in with the guys.”

Aside from an exhibition match against Roger Federer back home in Scotland last month, Murray has not played since losing to Sam Querrey in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in July.

Also Friday, U.S. Open runner-up Kevin Anderson of South Africa reached the final after beating fifth-ranked Austrian Dominic Thiem 7-6 (6), 6-4.

Andrey Rublev of Russia secured fifth place in the six-player tournament by beating Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain 6-4, 6-2.

On Saturday, 23-time grand slam champion Serena Williams returns to court with an exhibition match against French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

The 36-year-old Williams, the Australian Open champion, gave birth to her first child in September.

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.