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Isner beats Raonic, reaches U.S. Open quarters

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NEW YORK — John Isner — with all his finger-twirling, fist-pumping histrionics stirring the crowd — had just clinched his first U.S. Open quarterfinal berth since 2011 when his thoughts flashed to someone who wasn’t at the stadium to celebrate: his wife, Maddie.

She was home, expecting the couple’s first child.

Isner hoped he had another big delivery up first — a U.S. Open championship.

“Why not me?” Isner asked.

With his booming serve leading the way, why not indeed?

Isner, seeded 11th, slipped past Milos Raonic for the second time this season in a Grand Slam, using a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 victory on Sunday night to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

Isner needed four sets to defeat Raonic at Wimbledon on the way to the semifinals, his best showing at a major. The 33-year-old Isner is playing the best tennis of his career. He won the Miami Open and the Atlanta Open and was the highest-seeded American man at the U.S. Open for the seventh straight year.

Isner improved to 5-1 lifetime against the 25th-seeded Raonic. Raonic, the last Canadian left in the singles draw, needed treatment on his back after the fourth set. The 2016 Wimbledon runner-up failed to break Isner’s serve in the three sets he lost — none, surprisingly, going to a tiebreaker between the big servers.

Isner is known for his marathon matches and he played another long one in Louis Armstrong Stadium, hitting 3 hours, 8 minutes. It must have seemed like a warmup compared to his 6 1/2-hour (including a 26-24 fifth set) loss to Kevin Anderson at Wimbledon. He would have played as long as needed to equal his best result in the U.S. Open.

Back on his home turf, Isner was a fan favorite in New York.

Isner had the crowd behind him on every point and the 6-foot-11 American pumped his fist on every winner. With Citi Field signage peeking through one side of Louis Armstrong, Isner proved the biggest power hitter at Flushing Meadows this year. The crowd erupted when he nailed a 141 mph ace to clinch the third set, and his 20 aces boosted his tournament-high total to 112.

But it was a pretty drop shot in the second that led to a Michael Jordan-esque shrug that might have been his best of the night.

“The crowd just kept me in it,” Isner said. “This atmosphere is like a jungle. It was amazing.”

Tennis and tropical plants: New French Open court is wild

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PARIS (AP) Tennis and tropical plants: The stunning new court at the French Open is, quite literally, wild.

Surrounded on all four sides by greenhouses filed with exotic plants, the Court Simonne Mathieu saw its first French Open match on Sunday, a triumph for tournament organizers who overcame strong opposition from critics who long sought to block construction in a 19th-century garden of the 5,290-seat arena.

Automatic sprinklers periodically doused the lush greenery from Africa, Asia, South America and Australia as Garbine Muguruza, too busy to notice, beat Taylor Townsend of the United States 5-7, 6-2, 6-2.

Muguruza, the 2016 champion, later gave a big thumbs-up to the sunken arena that is now the third-biggest at Roland Garros, after the 9,829-seat Court Suzanne Lenglen and the 14,962-seat showcase Court Philippe Chatrier that is in the process of being rebuilt.

“It’s a very cute court. It’s not small, but it’s, you know, cozy,” Muguruza said. “It’s like in a garden. It’s a different feeling.”

Spectators were impressed, too.

“It’s like being in a forest,” said Parisian Kelly Orsinet. “It’s relaxing and pleasant.”

Sinking the red clay court and surrounding it with tasteful modern hothouses filled with leafy plants prevented it from being an eyesore in its historic surrounds, the Auteuil gardens that date back to 1898 and are loved for their majestic steel and glass greenhouses for prized botanical collections.

Expanding into the gardens is part of a massive, partially completed 380-million euro ($425 million) revamp of Roland Garros, the smallest of tennis’ Grand Slam venues that can feel uncomfortably cramped in its busiest opening week.

Gilles Jourdan, the project manager overseeing the modernization, was on hand to savor the new arena’s atmosphere with its first crowd, a landmark in what has been a difficult birth, complicated by legal challenges from opponents.

Neighbors who overlook the site had “said `It’s a disgrace! A disgrace!” Jourdan recalled. “Fewer and fewer are saying it’s a disgrace now.”

“You can’t see the court. That’s very important and that was the most fundamental idea,” he said. “If you’re not flying overhead in a helicopter, you wouldn’t know there’s a court there.”

Like other showcase courts at Roland Garros, the lower of the arena’s two tiers is tastefully fitted with cream-colored, hand-finished seats of chestnut wood from eastern France. Upper-tier spectators, some of whom have a view of the Eiffel Tower, are seated on benches, because fitting seats up there would have blocked lines of sight, clogging the arena’s airy, open feel, Jourdan explained.

Named after the French Open women’s champion in 1938 and 1939, the Court Simonne Mathieu was about half-empty for the start of the match but continually filled as Muguruza fought back from her unsteady start in a westerly breeze that shook leaves on the tall trees overlooking the arena.

Modernization work will resume after the tournament. The Chatrier court, largely torn down after Rafael Nadal won his 11th title there last year, has been rebuilt but is still missing the retractable roof planned for next year.

In the meantime, organizers have done a good job of making the project-in-progress look spic and span for the next two weeks.

“It’s a bit like at the theater: You look backstage and go `Ooops,”‘ Jourdan said. “We’ve hidden everything, and 10 days after the tournament, we’ll start again.”

Tennis’ Big 3: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic still rule tennis

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The Big 3 are still very much around. They’re still leading the rankings, still collecting the biggest trophies. And they’re still the dominant figures in men’s tennis, responsible for the main storylines when the French Open starts Sunday.

Roger Federer returns to Roland Garros for the first time since 2015 — and a decade after he completed the career Grand Slam by winning his only trophy there. Rafael Nadal seeks a record-extending — and hard-to-fathom — 12th title in Paris. Novak Djokovic bids to win his fourth major championship in a row for the second time in his career, something neither of his two great rivals ever did even once.

They occupy the top three spots in the rankings, with Djokovic followed by Nadal, then Federer. They occupy the top three slots on the list of most men’s Grand Slam titles, with Federer’s 20 followed by Nadal’s 17 and Djokovic’s 15. And they have combined to win the past nine major tournaments, with three apiece.

“Nadal’s reign is never over. Just like Federer’s reign isn’t ending,” said Riccardo Piatti, who coached Djokovic when the Serb was a teen and has worked with other top-10 players. “As long as they play, they’re always very dangerous. But let’s not forget that Djokovic is No. 1.”

Might seem silly now, but there was a stretch when some wondered whether this group might be done with all of that winning.

Federer, who’s now 37, went 4½ years without adding to his Slam count. He dealt with knee surgery and recurring back problems. He sat out the 2016 French Open, ending a streak of 65 straight major appearances, then missed the U.S. Open and Rio Olympics that year, too. He skipped the entire clay-court circuit each of the last two years, before finally coming back this season and reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome, where he withdrew, citing an injured right leg.

“In practice in Switzerland, I felt good right away,” Federer said about what it initially was like for him on the slow surface, which requires extra footwork and lengthy, grind-it-out exchanges. “Very happy where I’m at, to be quite honest. I was a bit surprised that it went as easy as it did.”

Nadal, who turns 33 during the French Open, did not win a title all season until last week at the Italian Open, which is mainly surprising because it means he kept faltering on his beloved clay.

He’s been sidelined by hand and knee injuries in 2019, and his play hasn’t always been up to his usual standards.

“Been some low moments for me,” he said.

But Nadal looked a lot more like himself in Rome, where he handed opponents a total of four 6-0 sets, including one against Djokovic in the final.

Asked to look ahead to Paris after that three-set loss, Djokovic said: “Nadal, No. 1 favorite, without a doubt. Then everyone else.”

“He’s one of the greatest champions this game has ever seen,” Djokovic said. “His mentality, his approach, his resilience, ability to fight back after long absence from the tour, injuries, surgeries. He’s had it all. He keeps on showing to the world why he’s one of the biggest legends of tennis history.”

Djokovic, who turned 32 on Wednesday, missed the last half of 2017 with a bad right elbow; he eventually had surgery last year, which he began with a 6-6 record and losses in the Australian Open’s fourth round and French Open’s quarterfinals. He was so bothered by the latter, which stretched his major title drought to two years, that he left Roland Garros in a huff, declaring he might skip Wimbledon.

So much for that.

Not only did he play at the All England Club, he won the trophy. Then he did the same at the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, making him the only man in tennis history with three separate streaks of three consecutive majors. Now Djokovic has a shot at a non-calendar Grand Slam, something he already accomplished in 2015-16 — and can set his sights on a true Grand Slam, winning all four majors in the same season, which only has been done by two men: Donald Budge in 1938, Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969.

And Djokovic has looked good on clay lately, winning the title in Madrid before losing to Nadal in Rome.

So now, really, the question is: How much longer can this terrific trio continue to thrive and hold off talented up-and-coming players such as 25-year-old Dominic Thiem, who lost to Nadal in last year’s French Open final, or 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Federer in Australia in January before losing his first Grand Slam semifinal to Nadal?

“Time is undefeated and these guys are doing a hell of a job of fighting it off, but it has to come at some point,” said International Tennis Hall of Fame member Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion. “Once these guys are gone, there’s a serious vacuum. … Roger, Rafa and Novak — they’re arguably the three best of all time.”

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AP Sports Writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.