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Djokovic ready for Wimbledon despite Queen’s final defeat

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LONDON (AP) Less than a month after casting doubt over his participation at Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic is heading for the tournament as a genuine title contender.

Despite coming up just short in a 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-3 loss to Marin Cilic in the Queen’s Club final on Sunday, Djokovic produced one of his best performances since missing the second half of 2017 with an elbow injury.

Cilic saved a match point at 4-5 in the second set and then won six consecutive points from 4-1 down in the tiebreaker to level, before going on to win his second title at the Wimbledon warmup.

Djokovic was left in far more optimistic mood than when he came off the court after a French Open quarterfinal defeat to Marco Cecchinato on June 5.

“Well, I’m there,” said Djokovic, when asked if he’s back to top form, singling out his earlier win against Grigor Dimitrov “in straight sets, all straight sets until today … all in all, I think that the level of my tennis has been as good as it has been the last 12 months.”

Djokovic appeared untouchable when completing his career Grand Slam at the 2016 French Open, but his only major final since then came at the U.S. Open later that season.

After struggling through the first half of 2017, with his only titles coming at smaller events in Doha and Eastbourne, the 12-time Grand Slam champion took six months off following Wimbledon due to a right elbow injury.

A fourth-round exit at the Australian Open on his return was followed by early defeats at Indian Wells and Miami. There were signs of improvement on clay as Djokovic reached the semifinals in Rome, but his ranking dropped to 22 following a crushing defeat to the unseeded Cecchinato in Paris.

Despite a tough draw on the grass courts of Queen’s Club, Djokovic reached the final without dropping a set.

“I think that most importantly for him he showed consistent level of play during all week, even against Dimitrov, even yesterday against Chardy. Today he was serving great,” Cilic said of Djokovic.

“So definitely he’s going to be one of the contenders to win (Wimbledon). Looking from the side and also playing him … I feel that he’s playing great tennis.”

But there’s one person who doesn’t appear so optimistic.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a contender … for a trophy or anything like that,” Djokovic said, basing that view on his results for the last 12 months. “I have to keep my expectations, you know, very low.”

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.”