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Buzarnescu captures first career singles title in San Jose

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — For a moment as she celebrated her first career title, an emotional, overjoyed Mihaela Buzarnescu stood on the court and made an apology for a tournament missing major star power.

No Serena Williams. No Venus. They each had early exits, leaving no Americans to cheer for Sunday in the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic.

“I’m sorry that there was no American in the final but, well, I’m really happy to be on the poster next year so that’s really amazing for me,” she said.

Just with those words, the fifth-seeded Romanian drew big applause and chuckles.

Her gracious spirit, steady strokes and entertaining play helped, too.

Buzarnescu is a champion at last at age 30, beating 49th-ranked Maria Sakkari of Greece 6-1, 6-0 at San Jose State University.

No. 24-ranked Buzarnescu threw her arms in the air in triumph and hit a ball into the stands Sunday after closing out the match with a 107 mph ace on a day several Romanian flags were held in the stands. She raised her racket and acknowledged those fans, too.

Buzarnescu, a left-hander who ranked No. 142 only a year ago, mixed her shots beautifully with laser groundstrokes to send Sakkari chasing down balls in the corners while adding some slice and drop shots.

Serena Williams, the Wimbledon runner-up, suffered a career-worst 6-1, 6-0 loss in her opener to Johanna Konta while playing just her fifth tournament since giving birth to her daughter last September.

Buzarnescu rallied from a set down to beat fourth-seeded Elise Mertens 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 in the semifinals.

After Sunday’s win, she was quick to credit the 23-year-old Sakkari for a sensational week of tennis and expressed hope they will both face off in many big matches again down the line after meeting for the first time.

“I hope we will play again and again and the best should win,” she said while thanking everyone who supported the event formally held at Stanford University.

Buzarnescu will climb to at least No. 21 in the WTA rankings when they’re released Monday, perhaps up to 20th. This marked her first championship victory in three tries after a runner-up showing this year in Prague.

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.”