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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.

Stephens beats Osaka in three sets at WTA Finals

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SINGAPORE — In a match between the last two U.S. Open champions, Sloane Stephens came out on top.

The 2017 champion beat Naomi Osaka 7-5, 4-6, 6-1 Monday at the WTA Finals, the season-ending tournament for the top eight players in the world.

Both players are making their debut appearances at the tournament, but Stephens appeared to be more composed while Osaka, who became the first Japanese citizen to win a Grand Slam title last month in New York, never seemed comfortable.

“I’m just really happy to get through and play a good competitive match,” Stephens said on court after the match. “I never gave up. I knew she’s been playing well and I’d have to play really good tennis to beat her.”

Both players struggled to hold serve. Osaka was broken on seven of 19 break-point opportunities, while Stephens was broken on four of 12.

Stephens entered the tournament with 33 wins this season, the least of any of the eight qualifiers. She reached her second career Grand Slam final at this year’s French Open, and won the Miami title.

Osaka continually showed her frustration during the match. When she failed to capitalize on four break points in the fourth game of the second set, she made a visible shrugging gesture with both hands.

Stephens gifted the second set to Osaka when she double-faulted on a second set point in the 10th game. But Osaka appeared to be mentally fatigued and only managed to hold serve in the third game of the final set.

Stephens is now 1-0 in the Red Group, while Osaka is 0-1. Angelique Kerber and Kiki Bertens are also in the group.

Tsitsipas wins Stockholm Open; becomes first Greek to claim ATP title

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STOCKHOLM — Stefanos Tsitsipas became the first Greek tennis player to win an ATP World Tour title when he beat Ernests Gulbis 6-4, 6-4 in the final of the Stockholm Open on Sunday.

The 20-year-old Tsitsipas tossed his racket in the air and put both hands to his head when Gulbis put a forehand into the net after 1 hour, 21 minutes.

Tsitsipas had lost his previous two finals, both times to Rafael Nadal. The No. 145-ranked Gulbis was an easier proposition, though, and Tsitsipas won 80 percent of his service points and didn’t have his serve broken.

“Of course I feel happy because I’m the first Greek (to win an ATP title),” said 16th-ranked Tsitsipas, who became the 12th first-time title-winner on the ATP Tour this year. “Hopefully many Greek players can achieve something like this. I would be super-happy to see them achieve something like this in the future.”

Gulbis had won all six of his finals at ATP tournaments. This was his first since 2014, having beaten top-seeded John Isner in the semifinals.

It was still a great week for Gulbis, who only had four tour-level wins this season before coming to the Swedish capital.

“He played a really good match. He had a great week,” Gulbis said. “I know it’s a big deal to win your first ATP title, so enjoy it. I wish that it’s not the last one.”