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Djokovic beats Cilic to reach Paris Masters semifinals

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PARIS — Novak Djokovic remains on course for a fifth Paris Masters title after beating Marin Cilic 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 to reach the semifinals on Friday.

Djokovic, who is guaranteed to take the No. 1 ranking on Monday, struggled on his serve for much of the first set.

Cilic had chances to break him in the fifth and seventh games and finally did so in the ninth when Djokovic hit a backhand long.

An ace gave Cilic set point and he took it when Djokovic sent a backhand wide.

Djokovic broke for 3-1 in the second set and did not look back.

In the third set, a Cilic cross-court forehand winner saw him break the Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion for 2-1.

Djokovic broke his racket in frustration and then broke Cilic straight back, after which the momentum shifted back in his favor as Cilic lost to him for the 16th time in 18 meetings.

Roger Federer, who is seeking a 100th career title, was playing the last quarterfinal later Friday against Kei Nishikori.

Earlier, Dominic Thiem beat defending champion Jack Sock 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.

The Austrian served out the match and clinched victory on his first match point when Sock hit a big forehand long.

“I’m in the semifinals of a Masters 1000 only for the fourth time,” Thiem said. “It means a lot for me because I didn’t do too well in the previous years in this part of the season. So it’s something really special to reach the semifinals.”

Thiem broke the American in the fifth game of the third set, and then showed good composure to save two break points of his own at 15-40 in the eighth game.

“We always have to be aware of getting broken here. Somehow a lot of breaks are happening,” Thiem said. “It’s a little bit comfortable to return here.”

The sixth-seeded Thiem, meanwhile, next faces unseeded Karen Khachanov of Russia in their first career meeting.

Khachanov, who won the Kremlin Cup in Moscow last month, broke fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev’s serve six times in a 6-1, 6-2 win.

Zverev had treatment on his right shoulder late in the first set and made a string of unforced errors. He took exception to some comments made in Khachanov’s box and spoke to his opponent at the end of the first set.

“I told him my shoulder is hurting and that his uncle, or something, that he’s going a bit crazy,” Zverev said. “I told him to tell him to keep it down a little bit because he was going a little bit too much over the edge.”

Zverev said he was struggling all week with his troublesome right shoulder.

Pliskova wins Italian Open for biggest clay title of career

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ROME (AP) – Karolina Pliskova captured the biggest clay-court title of her career by beating Johanna Konta 6-3, 6-4 Sunday in the Italian Open final.

Adding to a very consistent year from the 2016 U.S. Open runner-up, the victory will move Pliskova up to No. 2 in the rankings and makes her one of the contenders for the French Open, which starts next weekend.

“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.”

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.”

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.”