Nadal looks to Australian Open with confidence after surgery

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Rafael Nadal is confident he can be fit for the Australian Open as he chases an 18th Grand Slam title.

A right knee injury forced Nadal to retire from his U.S. Open semifinal in early September — his last competitive match — and the 32-year-old Spaniard had ankle surgery at the start of November.

Asked Thursday to assess his fitness level out of 10 ahead of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, Nadal said: “I don’t know . I am not that good with numbers.

“I started about two weeks ago and I am taking small steps forward. I am just making sure I am moving forward and it’s not a step backwards. I know I have time to be ready for Melbourne at 100 percent.”

The Australian Open starts Jan. 14.

Nadal, who won his 17th Grand Slam at the French Open in June, said he was happy with his progress “but of course I need to prove myself in competitions and hopefully, playing here will help me take the first steps.”

The exhibition tournament also features top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had surgery in February for an injured right elbow.

“It’s been a very exciting 12 months. Last year here, I was still carrying the injury of the elbow that resulted in the surgery,” Djokovic said. “I am grateful that this season has taught me a lot about myself as a tennis player and as a person. I really had to dig deep to sort of turn the table in my favor.”

Djokovic, who raised his haul of major trophies to 14 this year with Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, said his aims had changed.

“I feel I am not prioritizing success on the tennis court for the sake of success only as I used to do probably until about five years ago,” Djokovic said. “For me, tennis is more of a platform now for other things — for the values that I want to share and the messages that I want to give out to the young generation.”

The exhibition tournament also features a one-off match between the Williams sisters — Venus and Serena — on Thursday night.

Top-ranked Swiatek, Kvitova reach quarters at Agel Open

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OSTRAVA, Czech Republic – Top-ranked Iga Swiatek advanced to the quarterfinals of the Agel Open after Ajla Tomljanovic retired with an injury during the second set of their second-round match on Wednesday.

The Polish U.S. Open champion was leading 7-5, 2-2 when her Australian opponent retired due to a left knee injury at the indoor hardcourt event in the eastern Czech city of Ostrava.

Swiatek, who also won the French Open in June, will next face American qualifier Catherine McNally or Karolina Muchova.

Home favorite and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova upset second-seeded Paula Badosa of Spain 7-6 (4), 6-4 to set up a quarterfinal against this year’s Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina, who rallied to eliminate Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-5.

Czech players also won the last two first-round matches on the schedule.

Muchova knocked out seventh-seeded Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil 6-4, 6-4 and Barbora Krejcikova ousted American Shelby Rogers 6-2, 6-2 for her sixth straight victory after she won the Tallinn Open on Sunday for her first WTA title of the year.

Djokovic near flawless to reach second round in Astana

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan – Novak Djokovic delivered a near-flawless performance to ease into the second round of the Astana Open with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Cristian Garin on Wednesday as he goes for a third straight tournament title.

Djokovic dropped just six points on his serve and won the last five games to seal the win in just 62 minutes.

Djokovic is coming off a victory in Tel Aviv last week and – aside from a match at the Laver Cup – the Wimbledon champion hasn’t lost since the French Open quarterfinals.

“From the start to the end, (it was) a great performance,” Djokovic said. “Playing in a new tournament, different conditions, the first match is never easy. Obviously you are looking to see how you are going to adapt, but I did it perfectly, really, played as well as I can.”

Djokovic will next play Botic van de Zandschulp.

Top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz lost in the opening round on Tuesday in his first match since winning the U.S. Open title to capture the No. 1 spot.

Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the quarterfinals by beating 19-year-old Luca Nardi of Italy 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3). Nardi was playing just his fifth tour-level main-draw match and impressed the third-seeded Greek, who didn’t earn a single break point.

“He’s a player that can play very well in the future,” Tsitsipas said. “There weren’t any holes. I believe today he was able to sustain that level from the beginning to end, and that was extremely impressive.”

Roberto Bautista Agut also reached the quarterfinals as he followed up his first-round upset of Felix Auger-Aliassime by beating Pavel Kotov 6-1, 7-6 (5).

Marin Cilic, who lost the Tel Aviv final to Djokovic, had to come from behind to beat Oscar Otte 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-2 in the first round to set up a round-of-16 match against Karen Khachanov.