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Pliskova’s Wimbledon hopes grassed again at Birmingham

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BIRMINGHAM, England — Karolina Pliskova left spectators puzzling yet again why her powerful game has never translated to grass-court glory when she lost in the first round of the Wimbledon warmup at Birmingham on Monday.

The 1.85-meter (6-foot-1) Czech with the superbly steep serve who appeared to have the world at her feet when she became No. 1 last year, was outplayed by 19th-ranked Magdalena Rybarikova 6-2, 6-3.

Rybarikova’s versatile tactics and shot-making fluidity enabled her to control the match almost from start to finish.

The outcome was less surprising only to those who saw Rybarikova beat Pliskova in the second round of last year’s Wimbledon, and who knew the Slovak won her first WTA title nine years ago on these self-same courts in Birmingham.

“I have a big respect for her, but this was not a day for her,” Rybarikova said.

“I was feeling really good. I made so many returns (of serve), and maybe I was thinking about last year at Wimbledon when I played really well there, too.”

She used plenty of slice on the lush grass, mixed up the spins, moved with sharp anticipation, and was unafraid to come to the net. She was two breaks of serve up in less than 15 minutes, and broke again in the fifth game of the second set immediately after holding serve in less than a minute in a game containing two aces.

The day began with only former Wimbledon champions Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova, and reigning champion Garbine Muguruza at shorter odds than Pliskova of winning Wimbledon starting in two weeks.

But everything seemed to be against the third-seeded Pliskova, especially when she achieved her one ace of the first set only after a line judge changed his call, and challenged a fault call in the second set only for the video replay to fail to function.

Rybarikova next plays Kristina Mladenovic, the Frenchwoman who gave the tournament a dynamic start with a comeback win over Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic.

Mladenovic, who reached the top 10 in October but who has since fallen from the top 50, appeared very out of sorts in the first set but came back to win 1-6, 6-2, 6-4, denying Siniakova a break back point for 4-4 in the final set.

Mladenovic attributed her success partly to her younger brother Luka, a professional footballer with Calais who just happened to be on holiday and tried his hand at some high-level tennis coaching instead.

“I’m lucky to have him,” she said. “He told me my first serve wasn’t working well in the first set. I was not taking my time, and was rushing. He said, `Keep fighting and stay positive.’ He was right.”

Defending champion Petra Kvitova, the two-time Wimbledon champion, opens against Johanna Konta on Tuesday.

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.