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Nadal beats younger foe Khachanov at U.S. Open

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NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal’s knee was bothering him. His decade-younger, barrel-chested U.S. Open foe was bashing the ball.

The defending champion was two points away from falling into a two-set hole. Then he was two points away from dropping the third set. And then he was one point from losing the fourth set and being pushed to a fifth.

As all of those key moments presented themselves, he managed to come through. The No. 1-ranked Nadal overcame a shaky start Friday and used his customary relentless style to wear down No. 27 seed Karen Khachanov physically and mentally, eventually getting to the fourth round with an entertaining and back-and-forth 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3) victory that took 4 hours, 23 minutes.

“I escaped a very tough situation,” Nadal said, “so it’s a great thing.”

The man he beat in last year’s final at Flushing Meadows, No. 5 Kevin Anderson, got through his own tough test against an up-and-coming opponent, edging No. 28 Denis Shapovalov 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

After Nadal ceded the opening set, he had a trainer put tape under his right knee, which has caused problems off-and-on for the Spaniard over the years. Nadal later got more wrapping there during a 10-minute break at 5-all in the second set while the retractable roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium was shut because of light rain.

Just prior to the delay, Khachanov had served for that set at 5-4, and three times was two points away from taking it. But he couldn’t get closer than that. Nadal broke for 5-all and, after the delay, broke again to even it at a set apiece, aided by two double-faults from Khachanov. When Nadal earned that set with a passing shot that drew an errant volley, he crouched and yelled. Folks sitting in his guest box rose. A chunk of the crowd gave a standing ovation. Khachanov swatted a ball in disgust.

Nadal said the brief break was just what he needed.

“I just trying to calm myself for a moment. He was playing well,” Nadal said. “But for me, the most important thing is have the right tempo when I am playing. For some moments I felt things were going too fast in my mind. I didn’t take the time to do the right steps, to go to the ball with the right decision, with the right determination, with the right timing.”

The end of the third set was similar: Khachanov twice was two points from owning it and couldn’t get across the line, helping Nadal with three double-faults in the tiebreaker. And while Nadal kept letting set points slip away, four in all, he made No. 5 count, and how. It was a quintessential Nadal point, too: a 40-stroke exchange — yes, 40! — that featured so much defense from Nadal until Khachanov netted a backhand, then tossed his racket on the sideline.

“I needed that set, of course,” Nadal said.

He had one more pivotal part to get through: Khachanov’s set point in the fourth while ahead 6-5 as Nadal served at 30-40. But Khachanov put a forehand in the net there, and after a thrilling point that featured a drop shot, a lob, a leaping ’tweener by Khachanov and a volley winner by Nadal, they headed to another tiebreaker.

This one was pretty much all Nadal.

In sum, he handled the particularly crucial points better than Khachanov did. Which, really, should come as no surprise given the disparity in age, experience and success. One man, the 32-year-old Nadal, owns 17 Grand Slam titles, three at Flushing Meadows. The other, the 22-year-old Khachanov, has never been past the fourth round at a major tournament.

The sort of big hitting the 6-foot-6, 192-pound Russian displayed Friday, including 22 aces and booming groundstrokes, bodes well for his future.

“That just shows that I’m really close to this high level against top guys. Hopefully it will be soon on my side,” Khachanov said.

Perhaps, but Nadal is still at the top of the game.

After they finished, Ashe was the site for Serena Williams vs. Venus Williams, Part 30. Serena won 6-1, 6-2 to match the most-lopsided victory ever over her sister. It was their earliest meeting at a Grand Slam in 20 years.

“It’s not easy,” Serena said, despite how easy it looked in a match that lasted just 1 hour, 12 minutes. “She’s my best friend. She means the world to me. Every time she loses, I feel like I do.”

Earlier, 2017 champion Sloane Stephens betrayed a lot more emotion on that court than she usually shows anywhere, all of the double fist pumps making perfectly clear just how tight and tense things had been during her 6-3, 6-4 win against two-time runner-up Victoria Azarenka.

Stephens, the No. 3 seed, grabbed the last three games after returning from a brief break while the Ashe roof was shut (it was then reopened before Nadal vs. Khachanov).

Stephens went from up a set and 3-1 in the second to down 4-3 when Azarenka took three games in a row. That’s when rain came.

“The man upstairs,” Stephens said, “was looking out for me.”

Ball boy flub taints Zverev’s ATP Finals win vs. Federer

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LONDON — After pulling off one of the biggest wins of his career, Alexander Zverev was left apologizing for an unforced error he didn’t make.

Zverev denied Roger Federer a shot at a 100th career title by beating the Swiss great 7-5, 7-6 (5) on Saturday to advance to the championship match at the ATP Finals.

Federer was leading the second-set tiebreaker 4-3 and in the ascendancy of a rally on a Zverev service point when a ball boy at the back of the court dropped a ball. Zverev immediately signaled for the point to be stopped and the umpire ordered the point to be replayed.

Zverev served an ace before going on to close out the match moments later.

“I want to apologize for the situation in the tiebreak,” said Zverev, who was booed by some members of the crowd during his on-court interview. “The ball boy dropped the ball so it’s in the rules that we have to replay the point.

“I’m a little bit upset about the whole situation because this is not how I wanted it to end.”

Zverev is the youngest player at 21 to reach the final since 2009 and the first from Germany since 1996. He will next face Novak Djokovic or Kevin Anderson, who are in the other semifinal later Saturday.

Federer, 37, was seeking a record-extending seventh title, but was unable to cope with the pressure created by Zverev’s power and precision at the O2 Arena.

“He (Zverev) apologized to me at the net,” Federer said. “I was like, `Buddy, shut up. You don’t need to apologize to me here. Congratulations on a great match and a great tournament so far. All the best for the finals.’ And you move on.”

An inspired series of shots earned Zverev the first break points of the match in the 12th game and Federer sent a forehand wide to fall behind.

Federer willed himself to a break for 2-1 in the second set, but Zverev quickly composed himself to hit straight back in the following game.

Zverev overcame the freak interruption to establish a 5-4 lead in the tiebreaker, and Federer netted the simplest of forehand volleys to bring up match point.

He saved the first, but Zverev confidently put away a backhand drive volley to set up a shot at the biggest title of his career and leave Federer waiting until next season for his 100th title.

“Overall, I’m happy how the season went,” said Federer, who picked up his 20th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. “There’s many positives. So I’m excited for next season.”

Despite having reached only one Grand Slam quarterfinal, Zverev is the only active player outside the Big Four of Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray to have won three Masters titles. But victory at the tour’s flagship event would exceed those achievements.

“Novak right now is the best player in the world,” said Zverev, who lost to Djokovic in the round robin. “No matter who it’s going to be, I’ll be ready.”

Federer advances to record-extending 15th ATP Finals semi

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LONDON — Roger Federer advanced to the last four of the ATP Finals for a record-extending 15th time with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Kevin Anderson on Thursday.

Six-time champion Federer needed only a set to advance and produced his best performance at the season-ending tournament to end the round-robin stages with a 2-1 win-loss record.

Dominic Thiem’s 6-1, 6-4 victory over Kei Nishikori earlier had left Federer with a modest task and ensured that Anderson became the first South African ever to reach the semifinals.

Federer looked as if he was about to give up a break advantage for the second time in as many service games when he dropped to 0-40 attempting to close out the opening set at 5-4, but the 20-time Grand Slam champion found his first serve when it mattered most to hold.

Anderson hadn’t faced a break point in winning his first two matches. Federer, though, broke him twice more in the second set to claim top spot in the group and likely avoid a semifinal meeting with top-ranked Novak Djokovic.

Having struggled in an opening loss to Nishikori and relied mainly on his serve when defeating Thiem, Federer finally found some timing with his ground-strokes to apply consistent pressure on Anderson’s serve.

The previously impenetrable Anderson serve wilted, with two double faults gifting Federer a 4-3 lead. Much to the surprise – and disappointment – of the partisan crowd at the O2 Arena, the Swiss great handed the break straight back with a series of errors.

However, Federer steadied himself and made a delicate drop volley to break once more in the following game, before eventually closing out the set to maintain his record of having only missed the semifinals once in 16 appearances at the tournament.

Federer lost just four points on serve in the second set. He used a backhand slice to break for 4-3 and the same shot brought up two match points at 3-5, 15-40.

Having saved a match point on his way to securing a five-set quarterfinal victory over Federer at Wimbledon, Anderson threatened another comeback as he won a 21-shot rally to get back to deuce, but there was to be no repeat this time.

Two more Anderson forehand errors ended the match and Federer won the group by virtue of their head-to-head record.

With Djokovic clear favorite to top his group, which concludes Friday, Federer has boosted his chances of avoiding the in-form Serb until the final.