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Nadal loses to Thiem in Madrid, first loss on clay in 1 year

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MADRID – Top-ranked Rafael Nadal lost to Dominic Thiem 7-5, 6-3 in the Madrid Open quarterfinals on Friday, breaking the defending champion’s run of 21 straight wins on clay courts.

Nadal hadn’t lost a single set on clay since falling to Thiem a year ago in the Italian Open quarterfinals.

Since that loss, Nadal had been impeccable on his preferred surface. He won the French Open and the hard-court U.S. Open to take his Grand Slam haul to 16, and he came to the Spanish capital fresh off winning his 11th titles at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona.

But Thiem succeeded in doing the nearly impossible with his deep drives: Make Nadal look sluggish and a step slow on clay.

“Of course I am disappointed,” Nadal said. “I tried to fight back but I wasn’t good enough and he was better.”

Thiem got the better of long rallies by hitting precise winners, and avoided the costly errors that sunk Nadal’s title defense.

The fifth-seeded Austrian earned his third career victory in nine meetings with Nadal, all on clay. He also avenged his loss to Nadal here in last year’s final.

“It’s one of the toughest things to do to beat Rafa on clay,” Thiem said. “It’s so special, amazing, in his home country and in his living room in Madrid. I can just be happy. It was an amazing match.”

Thiem will face sixth-seeded Kevin Anderson in the semifinals after he hit 15 aces to down Dusan Lajovic 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-3.

Nadal said on Thursday, after breaking John McEnroe’s 1984 record for sets won on the same surface by winning his 50th straight set on clay, that he expected the match against Thiem to be “key to this tournament.”

He was right to be worried.

Thiem unsettled Nadal from the start, breaking his serve twice in the first set.

Nadal appeared to have salvaged the opening set when he broke Thiem back for 5-5, but the Austrian took the advantage right back after Nadal sent a forehand into the net.

Thiem then struck an ace to complete the set.

His shirt drenched in sweat, Nadal looked stunned in the second set when he sent four serves in a row into the net for back-to-back double faults before he ceded another break to go down 2-1.

Nadal pulled back a break, but couldn’t defend his serve and Thiem broke him twice more, finishing off the world No. 1 with one final forehand winner.

“If you want to beat him, especially on clay, you have to do something special. If I had played normal I would have no chance,” Thiem said. “I had to go for shots and go down the line and everything worked today. To beat Rafa on clay you have to have a special day.”

On the women’s side, Kiki Bertens beat seventh-seeded Caroline Garcia 6-2, 6-2 to advance to the final.

Bertens broke Garcia four times and hit 16 winners, while Garcia committed 24 unforced errors.

Bertens, from the Netherlands, will be seeking her sixth career title and her second of 2018.

Two-time former Madrid champion Petra Kvitova played Karolina Pliskova later in an all-Czech semifinal.

Larsson beats Riske to win Nuremberg Cup

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NUREMBERG, Germany — Swedish player Johanna Larsson won her first WTA singles title in three years by beating Alison Riske of the United States 7-6 (4), 6-4 in the final of the Nuremberg Cup on Saturday.

Her only other career singles victory was on home soil at Bastad in 2015.

Having come from a set down to win matches in the quarterfinals and semifinals, Larsson rallied from a break down in the first set and won the last four points of the tiebreaker. Larsson then won the final five games to take the match and deny Riske a second career singles title.

“When I held for 4-2, I could see some signs that she was a little bit tired,” Larsson said, “and that gave me a lot of energy to fight back.”

Pavlyuchenkova labors past Cibulkova to win at Strasbourg

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STRASBOURG, France — Third-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia won the Strasbourg International after laboring to a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (3), 7-6 (6) win against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia on Saturday.

They spent 3 hours, 35 minutes on court in a grueling contest, which ended when Pavlyuchenkova sealed victory on her second serve.

Pavlyuchenkova won her first title of the year and 12th overall, beating Cibulkova for the fourth time in their 11 career meetings.

Fifth-seeded Cibulkova was bidding for her ninth career title.

Both players head to the French Open in Paris, where first-round play starts Sunday.

Cibulkova reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2009, while Pavlyuchenkova reached her only quarterfinal there in 2013.