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Simona Halep back in action at Sydney International

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SYDNEY — No. 1-ranked Simona Halep returns to competitive tennis this week at the Sydney International unsure if her back injury has fully healed.

It will be the first time Halep has played since the French Open champion ended her season in October due to a herniated disc in her back.

And while the injury didn’t require surgery, Halep, who has previously battled similar injuries during her junior years, has spent much of the past three months off the court.

“It was very scary because it was below the back, so it’s always dangerous. But I had treatment at home,” Halep said while sailing around Sydney Harbour on Sunday.

“I rested for about six weeks and I did nothing, just exercises for the back. I didn’t have pain while I was practicing this period, off-season. So now I feel confident and it’s OK. But I need to see during the official match.”

Halep got off to a strong start last year, reaching the Australian Open final (losing to Caroline Wozniacki) and claiming her first Grand Slam title in Paris (beating Sloane Stephens) before losing her final four matches of the season, including a first-round defeat at the U.S. Open.

She will start the season without a coach after Australian Darren Cahill said in November he wanted to spend more time with his family. Cahill, who has spent the past four years with Halep, is taking a 12-month break.

The 27-year-old Halep said she will not consider a new coach for at least the next few months.

“(He) was a very big part of my career and I want to thank him for that,” she said. “Together we won the Grand Slam that we always wished for. It’s going to be tough, I’m sure. … but he decided this and I fully understood because family comes first always.”

With a bye in the first round in Sydney, Halep will meet either Jelena Ostapenko or Ashleigh Barty in the second round before a possible quarterfinal against Karolina Pliskova.

Fognini stuns Nadal 6-4, 6-2 to reach Monte Carlo final

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MONACO (AP) Fabio Fognini ended Rafael Nadal’s long winning streak at the Monte Carlo Masters, stunning the defending champion 6-4, 6-2 Saturday to reach the final for the first time and hand Nadal his first defeat here since 2015.

The 13th-seeded Italian had beaten Nadal twice before on clay, and also once at the U.S. Open in five sets, but this was arguably the most impressive.

Not since the 2005 final, a five-setter which Nadal won in four sets, had the 11-time champion Nadal been beaten 6-0 in a set here. And Fognini came so close to doing just that.

He served for the match at 5-0 and 40-0, but Nadal saved three match points – and some pride – by breaking back and then holding.

Serving again for the match at 5-2, Fognini hit a superb forehand down the line to clinch victory on his fourth match point.

Nadal’s last defeat here was also in the semifinals, against Novak Djokovic in 2015. He had not lost a set at the clay-court tournament since conceding one in the second round against Britain’s Kyle Edmund in 2017.

Fognini next plays unseeded Serb Dusan Lajovic in their first-ever meeting, and one few would have predicted happening here.

The 48th-ranked Lajovic earlier staged a remarkable comeback from 5-1 down to beat 10th-seeded Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-1.

Lajovic won 10 straight games to open up a 4-0 lead in the second set before Medvedev finally held serve. But after saving one match point, the Russian player tamely hit a return long on his opponent’s next opportunity.

It could have been an all-Serb semifinal but Medvedev knocked out the top-ranked Djokovic in Friday’s quarterfinals.

Saturday’s match started in difficult conditions, with a heavy wind coming in from the Mediterranean.

Serving for the first set at 5-1, Medvedev dropped his serve and remonstrated with himself.

Lajovic clinched the first set on serve, with Medvedev completely mistiming the ball and sending it skyward.

The 28-year-old Lajovic was ill before the tournament and said he needed antibiotics to recover.

He struggled to describe his surprise run.

“Incredible … Unreal,” he said, before settling on “It’s been a great week.”

Lajovic stages comeback to reach Monte Carlo final

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MONACO (AP) Unseeded Serb Dusan Lajovic staged a remarkable comeback from 5-1 down to beat 10th-seeded Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-1 in the Monte Carlo Masters semifinals on Saturday.

Lajovic won 10 straight games to open up a 4-0 lead in the second set before Medvedev finally held serve. But after saving one match point, the Russian player tamely hit a return long on his opponent’s next opportunity.

The 48th-ranked Lajovic now plays in his first career final against 11-time champion Rafael Nadal or 13th-seeded Fabio Fognini.

It could have been an all-Serb semi but Medvedev knocked out top-ranked Novak Djokovic in Friday’s quarterfinals.

Saturday’s match started in difficult conditions, with a heavy wind coming in from the Mediterranean blowing clay around the court.

Serving for the set at 5-1, Medvedev dropped his serve and remonstrated with himself.

He had good cause.

The first-set turnaround was complete when Lajovic clinched it on serve, with Medvedev completely mistiming the ball and sending it skyward.