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Nadal, Sharapova advance in straight sets at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal has missed a lot of tennis since last September. He hasn’t missed a beat.

The No. 2-seeded Nadal had a 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 win over Australian wild-card entry James Duckworth on Monday in the first round of the Australian Open, his first match back on Rod Laver Arena since he had to retire during his quarterfinal match last year.

The 17-time major winner hasn’t played since retiring from his semifinal at the U.S. Open because of a knee injury, and then had surgery on his right ankle in November. He also withdrew from a tune-up tournament in Brisbane because of a muscle strain in his thigh, mainly as a precaution, to ensure he’s fit for the season-opening major.

“Not easy to come back after a lot of months of competition, especially against a player playing super aggressive every shot,” Nadal said. “It’s very difficult to start after an injury – I know it very well. It’s very special to be back.”

Wearing a sleeveless top, he showed no signs of any issues against Duckworth. His only hiccup came when he served for the match in the ninth game of the third set and was broken at love. He returned the favor very quickly, though, to seal his spot in the second round.

Nadal has only lost twice in the first round at Grand Slams – to Steve Darcis at 2013 Wimbledon, and to Fernando Verdasco here in 2016 – and is aiming to be the first man in the Open era two win all four majors at least twice.

Maria Sharapova was the first of five Australian Open winners to play on Rod Laver Arena on Day 1, starting with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Harriet Dart. No. 2-ranked Angelique Kerber, the 2016 Australian Open champion, opened with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Polona Hercog.

Sharapova has the second-best record among active women’s players in first-round matches at the majors, and she gave an illustration of why that’s the case in a 63-minute disposal of Dart.

The 2008 champion is making her 15th trip to Melbourne Park and her 55th Grand Slam tournament, and she’s acutely aware of the toll that the sun and long early matches can have on a player’s title ambitions, so she gets straight to business.

Stung by a first-round loss at Wimbledon last year, Sharapova said she couldn’t afford to feel any empathy for Dart.

“I mean, there is no time for that, I’m sorry to say … when you’re playing the first round of a Grand Slam,” said Sharapova, who is still feeling pain in her right shoulder despite sitting out the end of last season after the U.S. Open. “I think I was just focused on not having a letdown.

“I think it’s very easy to be in a position where things are flowing, you know, you’re doing all the right things, she’s making a few errors, you’re comfortable, easy to get complacent, and, you know, complacency is not great. I was glad that I did the right things from the beginning till the end.”

Also advancing were 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, No. 11 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 19 Caroline Garcia, No. 29 Donna Vekic and No. 31 Petra Martic.

Danielle Collins advanced to the second round of a major for the first time following a 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 win over No. 14-seeded Julia Goerges, who won the title in Auckland to start the season.

Katie Boulter earned the distinction of winning the first 10-point tiebreaker under the Australian Open’s new system for deciding sets, and she celebrated twice.

Boulter beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-0, 4-6, 7-6 (6), including 10-6 in the tiebreaker. Boulter started celebrating and went to the net when she reached 7-4 in the tiebreaker, forgetting it wasn’t a conventional count.

The new rule was introduced to ensure matches don’t get too lengthy – previously the third set in women’s matches and the fifth set in men’s matches at the Australian Open had to be decided by a two-game advantage.

Fifth-seeded Kevin Anderson won his first match at Melbourne Park since 2015 when he beat Adrian Mannarino 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1. Also advancing on the men’s side were No. 19 Nikoloz Basilashvili, No. 20 Grigor Dimitrov and No. 26 Fernando Verdasco.

Defending champions Caroline Wozniacki and Roger Federer were scheduled to play night matches later Monday.

Serena falls to Pliskova in Aussie Open quarters

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Karolina Pliskova says her “mind was in the locker room” when she was down 5-1 in the third set of her Australian Open quarterfinal against 23-time major winner Serena Williams.

In one of the most stunning comebacks at the Australian Open, the seventh-seeded Pliskova saved four match points as she rallied to win the last six games to clinch a 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 victory and a semifinal spot against U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka.

“I didn’t have too many chances in the third set. I was a little bit too passive. Obviously mentally down,” Pliskova said. “So I just said, ‘Let’s try this game, on 5-2, maybe I’m going to have couple of chances.’

“She got a bit shaky at the end, so I took my chances, and I won.”

Pliskova’s win over the seven-time Australian Open titlist means there’ll be a first-time women’s champion at Melbourne Park this year.

In the other semifinal, two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova will play Danielle Collins, who had never won a Grand Slam match before this tournament. Kvitova’s best previous run at Melbourne was to the semifinals in 2012.

‘Barbecued chicken’: Tiafoe’s Australia run ended by Nadal

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal is back to feeling healthy. Probably not a coincidence that he’s back in the Australian Open semifinals.

Playing his familiar brand of court-covering, ball-bashing, opponent-frustrating tennis, Nadal claimed 20 of his first 23 service points and saved the only two break chances he faced, ending American Frances Tiafoe’s best Grand Slam run with a dominating 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory Tuesday night.

“I feel lucky to be where I am after all the things I went through,” said Nadal, who quit during his quarterfinal at Melbourne Park a year ago because of a right leg problem, again during his semifinal at the U.S. Open in September because of a painful right knee, and then had offseason surgery on his right ankle.

“Not easy situations,” he said, summing it up.

Nadal, 32, reached his 30th major semifinal and prevented Tiafoe from getting to his first, two days after he turned 21.

“I knew he was going to bring crazy intensity. I knew the ball was going to be jumping. I knew if he got hold of a forehand, it was going to be barbecued chicken,” Tiafoe said. “But point in, point out, I’ve never seen someone so locked in.”

The two hadn’t played each other before, though they did practice together at Roland Garros back in 2014, when Tiafoe was a teen in the junior competition.

Entering this year’s Australian Open, the 39th-ranked Tiafoe had never been past the third round at a major. But he knocked off two-time Slam runner-up Kevin Anderson and 20th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov on the way to the quarterfinals, drawing plenty of attention for his play – and his bare-chested, biceps-slapping celebrations inspired by LeBron James.

As usual, Tiafoe was animated and talkative Tuesday. He lamented missed shots with a self-admonishing “Oh, Frances!” He marked good ones with a shout of “Let’s go!”

But it all came to a screeching halt against Nadal, a 17-time major champion.

Tiafoe, who is from Maryland, was broken the initial time he served in each set, which was all Nadal needed, given how well he handled his own service games. He’s been reluctant to go into detail about a recent tweak he made to his serve, saying it’s “nothing drastic, nothing dramatic.”

He spoke after Tuesday’s win about going for winners on his first forehand following a serve, something he called “very important … at this stage of my career.”

Whatever he’s doing is working. And how. Nadal has won every set he’s played in the tournament, the first time he’s done that en route to the semifinals in Australia since 2009, the only time he won the championship.

“I am playing well,” he said. “I did a lot of things well during the whole week and a half.”

Now Nadal goes up against another opponent much younger than he is, 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, who upset Roger Federer in the fourth round.

The 14th-seeded Tsitsipas became the first player from Greece to earn a semifinal berth at a major, beating No. 22 Roberto Bautista Agut 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2) earlier Tuesday.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Tsitsipas said about his matchup against Nadal. “I feel all right with my game. I feel like I can do something good against him.”

Asked about all of these kids trying to elbow their way to the top of tennis, Nadal smiled and said: “They can wait a little bit.”