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Osaka set for showdown against Stephens at WTA Finals

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SINGAPORE — Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens, the last two U.S. Open champions, will make their career debuts at the WTA Finals by playing each other in their first match in Singapore on Monday.

The initial stage of the eight-player WTA Finals field is a round-robin competition with two teams of four players. The two players with the best record from each round-robin group advance to next Saturday’s semifinals.

It’s been a whirlwind six weeks for Osaka, a dual Japanese-American citizen who plays under the Japanese flag, since winning the U.S. Open.

Her Open victory – the second title of her career with the first coming at Indian Wells in April – was marred by controversy as opponent Serena Williams initiated a number of run-ins with umpire Carlos Ramos during the match.

“For me, I think I’m playing tournament after tournament, so I don’t really have time to think about, like, my life changing or anything,” said Osaka, of her new celebrity status. “So, yeah, I feel like I would need the year to end to maybe process more.

“I mean, with the recognition part, I do feel a bit different,” she added. “Like before it was only Japan I felt like people know me. But now like even here, I guess this is Asia, too, though, so it doesn’t really count, but like in the airports and stuff. I just think that that’s kind of funny.”

Stephens, 25, who won the U.S. Open in 2017, is looking forward to this second outing against Osaka. She won their first meeting in the 2016 Acapulco quarterfinals in straight sets.

“I think it will be super fun and it’s a great matchup,” Stephens said. “Obviously everyone works all year long to get here. It’s my debut here as well as hers, so it’s new territory for both of us. We both have had amazing accomplishments so we’ll be looking forward to the match and we’ll see what happens.”

Both are hoping they handle this new experience of qualifying for the year-end tournament with ease.

For Stephens, the biggest concern is adjusting to the unfamiliar round-robin format.

“I haven’t played a round-robin since I started playing tennis at Sierra Sport and Racquet Club, and you had to play the round robin to advance in your ladder,” Stephens said. “Yeah, I was, like, 10. So I’m really not sure how it works. But I think you just play and try to win and whatever happens happens.”

Osaka is hoping that just being part of the WTA Finals won’t give her the jitters.

“I hope I don’t get overwhelmed,” Osaka said. “You never really know how you’re gonna feel until you’re in that moment. So I can only hope that I’ll play well and I won’t get, like, nervous or anything, which I’m sure I will, but I feel like that’s all part of the process.”

The two join Angelique Kerber, the reigning Wimbledon champion, and Kiki Bertens, who qualified for the tournament when No. 1 Simona Halep withdrew with a herniated disc in her back, in the Red Group. Kerber and Bertens play Monday’s second scheduled match.

The competition gets under way with White Group action on Sunday.

Petra Kvitova, the 2011 WTA Finals champion, will play Elina Svitolina, who debuted here last year, in the opening match. Caroline Wozniacki, the defending champion, faces Karolina Pliskova, making a third consecutive appearance here, in the second match.

Despite not being able to play here, Halep is in Singapore and received the WTA Player of the Year award at the black-tie WTA Finals Gala on Friday night. The Romanian won her first Grand Slam title at this year’s French Open and was an Australian Open finalist.

“Winning a Grand Slam and finishing No. 1, I think it’s the most that I could ask for,” Halep said. “I had also tough moments, because Melbourne, it was really tough to get over and to come back stronger.

“I’m proud that I could come back stronger and I could make a better result. So I think definitely, actually, is the best year of my career.”

Back on top: Nadal beats Djokovic for 9th Italian Open title

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ROME (AP) Rafael Nadal is right back where he wants to be.

After losing in the semifinals of three straight clay-court tournaments, Nadal dominated for stretches against his longtime rival, Novak Djokovic, in a 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 win Sunday for a record-extending ninth Italian Open title.

It marked the first time in an Open Era-record 54 meetings, and in their 142nd set against each other, that Nadal won a set against Djokovic without conceding a game – otherwise known as a bagel.

The timing for Nadal’s return to form could not have been more opportune, as he will seek a record-extending 12th title at the French Open starting next weekend.

“Winning a title is important but for me the most important thing is feel myself competitive, feel myself healthy,” Nadal said. “Then with the feeling that I am improving. I know if I’m able to reach my level you can win, you can lose, but normally I’m going to have my chances, especially on this surface.”

Top-ranked Djokovic, meanwhile, appeared exhausted after spending more than 5 1/2 hours on court against Juan Martin del Potro and Diego Schwartzman the previous two days.

Djokovic was also coming off the Madrid Open title last week.

“I don’t want to talk about fatigue or things like that,” Djokovic said. “Rafa was simply too strong today.”

In the women’s final earlier, Karolina Pliskova captured the biggest clay-court trophy of her career by beating Johanna Konta 6-3, 6-4.

The Foro Italico crowd continually tried to encourage Djokovic with chants of “Vai Nole!” – Go Nole! – but the top-ranked Serb struggled with his overhead and drop shots.

Midway through the second set, Nadal chased down a lob with an over-the-shoulder shot and Djokovic’s ensuing overhead landed in the net to conclude a long point.

Djokovic again netted an overhead in the next game and then kicked the ball in frustration when he missed a drop shot attempt late in the second.

But Djokovic hung around in the second and converted his first set point when a looping forehand from Nadal sailed wide for his first break of the match. As he walked to his chair after winning the second set, Djokovic waved his arms to get the crowd behind him.

However, Djokovic didn’t have much left in the tank.

When Nadal pushed Djokovic deep into the corner in the opening game of the third set and Djokovic’s desperation lob sailed long to hand Nadal a break, Djokovic smashed his racket to the clay three times in frustration and received a warning from the chair umpire.

Djokovic won only 29 percent of the points on his second serve and committed 39 unforced errors to Nadal’s 17. Also, Nadal won 23 of the 31 rallies with nine or more shots.

PLISKOVA NO. 2

Pliskova’s victory will move her up to No. 2 in the rankings and makes her one of the contenders for Roland Garros.

“I just hope to take the tennis I was playing here to Paris,” Pliskova said. “For sure there’s going to be a chance for me if I play this way.”

The 2016 U.S. Open runner-up, Pliskova also reached the Australian Open semifinals and the Miami Open final after opening this season with a title in Brisbane, Australia. But she lost in the second round of her previous two tournaments on clay in Stuttgart, Germany, and Madrid.

“Nobody really gave me chance for this tournament – even me,” Pliskova said. “Before the tournament, I was not super confident, not thinking about the final at all. I was just happy with every match which I played. So it’s little bit like a miracle for me.”

The unseeded Konta appeared nervous at the start, double faulting then landing a backhand into the net to hand Pliskova a break in her opening service game.

In the second set, Pliskova used a swinging forehand volley putaway to break for a 4-3 lead and never looked back.

“It’s always tough playing Karolina,” Konta said. “There’s rarely really a rhythm to the match. She plays with big shots, quite flat, and big serves. It can feel sometimes you’re fighting an uphill battle. That was the case today.”

After converting her third championship point, Pliskova went over and slapped hands with Conchita Martinez, the four-time Rome champion who she recently named her head coach. Pliskova then asked Martinez and the rest of her team to come down onto the court for her victory celebration.

“She loved clay so she knows exactly what I should do,” Pliskova said of Martinez. “There were small differences: movement, maybe to put more topspin on the balls, use drop shots – which I never use, but I start little bit, and to mix also the serves. … I know she loved this tournament. I think she prayed so I could win today.”

Nadal gets his revenge over Tsitsipas to reach Rome final

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ROME (AP) After losing in the semifinals of three straight clay-court tournaments, Rafael Nadal looked more like his old, dominant self when he beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-4 Saturday to reach the Italian Open final.

It was a measure of revenge for Nadal after losing to Tsitsipas in three sets at this stage in Madrid last week. The victory should also restore Nadal’s confidence as he seeks a record-extending 12th title at the French Open starting next weekend.

“I’m playing better every match, every weekend,” Nadal said.

Aiming for a ninth trophy in Rome, Nadal’s opponent in Sunday’s final will be either Novak Djokovic or Diego Schwartzman, who were playing later.

Nadal is in the middle of his longest title drought to begin a season since he came onto the scene in 2004. His last trophy came in Toronto last August.

The crowd attempted to encourage Tsitsipas with chants of “Tsi-Tsi-Tsi; Pas-Pas-Pas” but the 20-year-old Greek player couldn’t keep up with Nadal on the long rallies – even though he didn’t play a day earlier after Roger Federer withdrew from the quarterfinals.

Conditions were much slower than on the high-altitude court in Madrid, which favored Nadal and made it tougher for Tsitsipas to execute his attacking game.

Midway through the first set, Nadal produced an awesome forehand winner up the line on the run, drawing a loud roar from the packed Campo Centrale crowd.

Nadal broke Tsitsipas’ serve early in both sets.

In the women’s tournament, Johanna Konta rallied past sixth-seeded Kiki Bertens 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 in nearly three hours to reach the biggest clay-court final of her career.

Konta’s only previous final on clay came recently in Rabat, Morocco, where she lost the title match to Maria Sakkari.

Konta could get a rematch with Sakkari if the Greek qualifier beats fourth-seeded Karolina Pliskova in the other semifinal.

Midway through the first set, Konta surprised Bertens with a drop shot winner during a baseline rally, causing Bertens to fall on her stomach to the clay as she rapidly changed directions. Then in the next game, Konta ran down a drop shot and produced an angled winner.

Bertens was coming off the Madrid Open title.

“She played really smart with the drop shots,” Bertens said. “I was all the time getting myself together and trying to push for more energy. But it was not there.”

The 42nd-ranked Konta served for the first set at 5-4 but was broken at love. But Bertens double faulted to let Konta serve for the second set and Konta got an early break in the third.

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