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Nadal beats Djokovic in Italian Open semifinals

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ROME (AP) Rafael Nadal was challenged in the first set by Novak Djokovic before pulling away for a 7-6 (4), 6-3 win to reach the Italian Open final on Saturday.

In their 51st meeting but first in more than a year, Nadal’s court coverage eventually proved too much to handle for Djokovic, who is still regaining his form from a persistent right elbow injury.

“That was a tough battle, a good level of tennis, a combination of good tactics and great shots from both of us,” Nadal said.

In the women’s tournament, Elina Svitolina returned to the final with a comfortable 6-4, 6-3 win over Anna Kontaveit.

The first set alone of Nadal-Djokovic made the latest installment of the Open era’s most prolific rivalry worth watching. Djokovic recovered from an early break with excellent shot-making and Nadal converted his first set point with a return winner on the line after Djokovic followed his serve to the net.

During one particularly entertaining point midway through the first set, Nadal ran down a drop shot and forced Djokovic to retreat with a smartly angled response before Djokovic came forward again to finish the point off with a volley winner.

Fans stood up and applauded them on multiple occasions.

“It was a really good quality match,” Djokovic said. “I enjoyed it.”

Nadal’s opponent in Sunday’s final will be defending champion Alexander Zverev or Australian Open runner-up Marin Cilic.

If Nadal wins his record-extending eighth Rome title, he will replace Roger Federer at No. 1.

Federer is sitting out the clay season to prepare for Wimbledon.

After losing the first set tiebreak, Djokovic started shouting at his support box in an apparent discrepancy over tactics – then did it again on the next changeover.

Nadal got an early break in the second set and never looked back.

Djokovic noted that at 3-3 in the tiebreak he had to go play against the wind, “which is a huge difference” when playing Nadal.

“Those are the little details in tennis that only players and people who were on the court know,” Djokovic said.

Still, this was Djokovic’s best performance of the year.

“I played four matches here and I didn’t expect anything coming into this tournament,” Djokovic said. “I’m pleased with how I played the last three days – very pleased – and hopefully Roland Garros can be a continuation of this run.”

Aiming for the third successful title defense in her career, Svitolina will face top-ranked Simona Halep or three-time Rome champion Maria Sharapova.

In last year’s women’s final, Svitolina came back to beat Halep after the Romanian rolled her ankle.

“I’m happy with the way I handled today under pressure and all this week,” Svitolina said. “I know there is one match to go and I will give it my best shot tomorrow.”

The fourth-ranked Svitolina produced only 18 winners to Kontaveit’s 24 but also committed fewer unforced errors – 13 to 20 – in a match that lasted 74 minutes.

Kontaveit, an Estonian, could still be pleased with a week that saw her eliminate four established players: 12th-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe, two-time finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova, 1999 champion Venus Williams and second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki.

This is the last major warmup before the French Open starts next weekend.

Serena falls to Pliskova in Aussie Open quarters

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Karolina Pliskova says her “mind was in the locker room” when she was down 5-1 in the third set of her Australian Open quarterfinal against 23-time major winner Serena Williams.

In one of the most stunning comebacks at the Australian Open, the seventh-seeded Pliskova saved four match points as she rallied to win the last six games to clinch a 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 victory and a semifinal spot against U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka.

“I didn’t have too many chances in the third set. I was a little bit too passive. Obviously mentally down,” Pliskova said. “So I just said, ‘Let’s try this game, on 5-2, maybe I’m going to have couple of chances.’

“She got a bit shaky at the end, so I took my chances, and I won.”

Pliskova’s win over the seven-time Australian Open titlist means there’ll be a first-time women’s champion at Melbourne Park this year.

In the other semifinal, two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova will play Danielle Collins, who had never won a Grand Slam match before this tournament. Kvitova’s best previous run at Melbourne was to the semifinals in 2012.

‘Barbecued chicken’: Tiafoe’s Australia run ended by Nadal

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal is back to feeling healthy. Probably not a coincidence that he’s back in the Australian Open semifinals.

Playing his familiar brand of court-covering, ball-bashing, opponent-frustrating tennis, Nadal claimed 20 of his first 23 service points and saved the only two break chances he faced, ending American Frances Tiafoe’s best Grand Slam run with a dominating 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory Tuesday night.

“I feel lucky to be where I am after all the things I went through,” said Nadal, who quit during his quarterfinal at Melbourne Park a year ago because of a right leg problem, again during his semifinal at the U.S. Open in September because of a painful right knee, and then had offseason surgery on his right ankle.

“Not easy situations,” he said, summing it up.

Nadal, 32, reached his 30th major semifinal and prevented Tiafoe from getting to his first, two days after he turned 21.

“I knew he was going to bring crazy intensity. I knew the ball was going to be jumping. I knew if he got hold of a forehand, it was going to be barbecued chicken,” Tiafoe said. “But point in, point out, I’ve never seen someone so locked in.”

The two hadn’t played each other before, though they did practice together at Roland Garros back in 2014, when Tiafoe was a teen in the junior competition.

Entering this year’s Australian Open, the 39th-ranked Tiafoe had never been past the third round at a major. But he knocked off two-time Slam runner-up Kevin Anderson and 20th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov on the way to the quarterfinals, drawing plenty of attention for his play – and his bare-chested, biceps-slapping celebrations inspired by LeBron James.

As usual, Tiafoe was animated and talkative Tuesday. He lamented missed shots with a self-admonishing “Oh, Frances!” He marked good ones with a shout of “Let’s go!”

But it all came to a screeching halt against Nadal, a 17-time major champion.

Tiafoe, who is from Maryland, was broken the initial time he served in each set, which was all Nadal needed, given how well he handled his own service games. He’s been reluctant to go into detail about a recent tweak he made to his serve, saying it’s “nothing drastic, nothing dramatic.”

He spoke after Tuesday’s win about going for winners on his first forehand following a serve, something he called “very important … at this stage of my career.”

Whatever he’s doing is working. And how. Nadal has won every set he’s played in the tournament, the first time he’s done that en route to the semifinals in Australia since 2009, the only time he won the championship.

“I am playing well,” he said. “I did a lot of things well during the whole week and a half.”

Now Nadal goes up against another opponent much younger than he is, 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, who upset Roger Federer in the fourth round.

The 14th-seeded Tsitsipas became the first player from Greece to earn a semifinal berth at a major, beating No. 22 Roberto Bautista Agut 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2) earlier Tuesday.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Tsitsipas said about his matchup against Nadal. “I feel all right with my game. I feel like I can do something good against him.”

Asked about all of these kids trying to elbow their way to the top of tennis, Nadal smiled and said: “They can wait a little bit.”