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Svitolina’s top ambitions survive grass-court struggle

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BIRMINGHAM, England — Elena Svitolina, who came within two wins of becoming world No. 1 in January, maintained her ambitious momentum to reach the top by surviving a tricky start to her Wimbledon build-up on Tuesday.

The second-seeded Svitolina stumbled within sight of a two-set victory, and briefly faltered again in the last set before beating Donna Vekic of Croatia 6-1, 3-6, 6-1.

Svitolina showed glimpses of the tenacious movement and consistently ferocious drives which have earned her the best win-loss record on the WTA tour since the beginning of last year, but also revealed glimpses of insecurity on the lush, low-bouncing surface.

Despite carving a lead of a set and 3-1, her gradually increasing attempts to win points in the forecourt were of variable quality, while Vekic, a former runner-up here, began to contain and counterattack more effectively.

Svitolina nearly let slip another lead of 3-1, in the last set, needing to save two break points on her next service game – one with a fine serve, and the other with a net attack finished off at the third attempt.

Eventually, the Ukrainian’s determination to adapt tactically to a surface on which she has yet to progress beyond any quarterfinal paid timely dividends, and she accelerated toward the finishing line at a canter.

“I was just trying to play well and to dominate, but she played a couple of great points to break back – which is always nice to have,” said Svitolina, apparently meaning she was pleased to gain extra practice on such a technique-testing surface.

“It was difficult for me because she hit the ball very flat and the first match on grass is always a challenge.”

She next faces Alize Cornet of France, who notably beat Serena Williams at 2014 Wimbledon, and who outlasted former top-10 player Ekaterina Makarova of Russia, by 5-7, 6-4, 6-1.

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.