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Serena Williams ousts No. 1 Simona Halep at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — As Serena Williams made her way out to the Australian Open’s main court during pre-match introductions, the voice booming over the stadium’s speakers implored spectators to welcome “the world’s No. 1 player – from Romania, Simona Halep.”

Oops.

Williams, wearing headphones, quickly pivoted and retreated back into the tunnel she’d just emerged from, making way for her fourth-round opponent Monday night. A couple of hours later, when Williams wrapped up her 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 victory over Halep in a contest filled with momentum swings and fantastic play by both, it was clear which woman really is No. 1, regardless of what the current rankings say.

“It was a really intense match, and it was some incredible points,” said Williams, who improved to 9-1 against Halep and now meets 2016 U.S. Open runner-up Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals. “I love playing tennis and I love to play here and I love to be back out here.”

The 37-year-old American sat out last year’s Australian Open after giving birth to a daughter months earlier and dealing with health complications. Since returning to the tour, Williams has reached the past two Grand Slam finals, losing both – and leaving her still one shy of equaling Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles.

Halep offered up the first real test Williams has faced at this year’s Australian Open, where she is bidding for an eighth trophy, pushing her throughout a back-and-forth matchup that was a fascinating mix of power, court coverage and shotmaking.

It wasn’t until Williams saved three break points in a monumental game to hold for 3-all in the third set that she gained control.

“I was unlucky a little bit,” Halep said.

Williams then broke for a 4-3 lead and finally was on her way.

“In order for me to stay out there, I had to play a little like I knew I could,” said Williams, who is seeded 16th on account of all the time she took away from tennis while becoming a mother. “I’m such a fighter. I just never give up. It’s definitely something that’s innate. I just work so hard for every point.”

That she does. She also makes abundantly clear just how much every point means to her.

Against Halep – who beat Serena’s older sister, Venus, in the third round – Williams frequently pumped her fists or yelled “Come on!” after key exchanges. When Halep hit one shot that caught the net tape and barely trickled over for a winner, Williams looked pained and complained, “I mean, it’s not fair.”

Pliskova advanced earlier Monday with a 6-3, 6-1 victory over two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza.

The other quarterfinal on that side of the women’s bracket features No. 4 Naomi Osaka against No. 6 Elina Svitolina. Osaka, who beat Williams in last year’s U.S. Open final, edged No. 13 Anastasija Sevastova 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the fourth round, while Svitolina got past 2017 U.S. Open finalist Madison Keys 6-2, 1-6, 6-1.

In men’s matches, 2016 Wimbledon runner-up Milos Raonic knocked off No. 4-seeded Alexander Zverev 6-1, 6-1, 7-6 (5), and next takes on No. 28 Lucas Pouille, a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5, 7-6 (2) winner over No. 11 Borna Coric. No. 23 Pablo Carreno Busta left the court yelling at the chair umpire after a disagreement in the concluding tiebreaker of his 6-7 (8), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (8) loss to No. 8-seeded Kei Nishikori in a 5-hour, 5-minute marathon that was the longest match of the tournament. Nishikori’s quarterfinal foe will be No. 1-seeded and six-time champion Novak Djokovic, who overcame a couple of tumbles to the court and a series of energy-sapping baseline exchanges – one point lasted 42 strokes! – to beat No. 15 Daniil Medvedev 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-3.

After topping Medvedev in a 3-hour, 15-minute struggle to get back to the quarterfinals for the first time in three years, Djokovic joked during an on-court interview: “Since I guess my next opponent is watching, I’m feeling fantastic. I’ve never felt fresher in my life.”

Williams and Halep traded jittery breaks of serve in the opening two games, as each double-faulted and flubbed shots. But Williams settled down first, compiling a 10-3 advantage in winners to grab the opening set.

“I felt,” Halep said afterward, “like I had been hit by the train.”

Halep then fell behind by a break in the second, before suddenly seeming to awaken and display her own brand of baseline talent that carried her to the Australian Open final and French Open championship in 2018.

Halep made only 12 unforced errors in the entire match, and that clean play got her back into things, especially as Williams’ miscue count rose to a final tally of 31.

“She’s back to being Serena on both the physical and emotional side. So I think her level is good,” said Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. “I think she needed a big fight, and it happened today, and I think it’s a great thing – especially when it ends like that.”

Until facing Halep, Williams had dropped a total of only nine games through three matches in the tournament. Not only did Halep exceed that total, she also snapped Williams’ 21-set Australian Open winning streak.

That dated to the start of Williams’ run to the 2017 title, which she won while pregnant.

“Overall, I’m hanging in there. I think overall, I’m solid,” Williams said. “I can definitely go to a new level. I have to if I want to stay in the tournament.”

Because this was a night match, her 16 1/2-month-old daughter, Olympia, couldn’t stay up to watch, Williams said, adding: “But we’re going to have a fun morning tomorrow” watching films.

Williams joked she’s seen “Frozen” and “Beauty and the Beast” several thousand times apiece.

“I’m like, `Olympia, there’s a plethora of movies to choose from,”‘ Williams said. “`Can you choose another one?”‘

Opelka edges top-seeded Isner to reach New York Open final

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UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) Reilly Opelka edged top-seeded John Isner the same way he knocked his fellow American out of the Australian Open, winning a match full of tiebreakers Saturday night in a New York Open semifinal that set a record for combined aces in a three-set match.

Opelka fought off six match points in a marathon second set and went on to win 6-7 (8), 7-6 (14), 7-6 (4) to move within a victory of his first ATP title.

The 6-foot-11 Opelka and 6-10 Isner combined for 81 aces and there were no breaks of serve. Opelka hit 43 aces, Isner had 38, and each had only one double fault.

It was similar to their meeting in Melbourne, when Opelka beat the ninth-ranked Isner in a first-round match that went four tiebreakers.

Opelka will play Canadian Brayden Schnur, a qualifier who had never won a tour-level match before this week.

Schnur recovered after blowing a 3-0 lead and eventually the second set to beat American Sam Querrey 7-6 (7), 4-6, 6-3.

Schnur was the final alternate accepted into the tournament’s qualifying draw and was nearly gone from Long Island quickly, eventually overcoming two match points to beat No. 3 seed Steve Johnson in the second round.

There was nothing quick about the second semifinal, which lasted 2 hours, 31 minutes and went well past the previous record of 71 aces, set earlier this year in a match between Nick Kyrgios and Ryan Harrison.

Isner was in good position to win in straight sets, taking a 3-1 lead in the tiebreaker when Opelka pushed a forehand long. But he wasted a chance to win the match on his serve, and Opelka then kept erasing the rest of the match points when he served.

Isner had dropped both matches this season, part of a six-match skid dating to the end of last year, before winning his first two matches here in straight sets.

But he was stopped again by Opelka, who fell two aces shy of Ivo Karlovic’s record for most aces in a three-set match.

More AP Tennis: https://www.apnews.com/apf-Tennis and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Mertens upsets Halep in Qatar Open final

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DOHA, Qatar – Unseeded Elise Mertens came from a set and a break down to beat recent No. 1 Simona Halep 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the Qatar Open final and capture the biggest title of her career on Saturday.

Halep led 6-3, 2-0, then lost a service game for a third time to see the second set back on serve. Mertens continued to pressure, missing two more break chances in the seventh game but finally breaking – to love – in the ninth. The set was the first Mertens took from Halep in three matchups.

Mertens broke again to start the third set, Halep leveled at 2-2, but Mertens finished stronger and won her fifth career title.

The Belgian beat two other top-10 players this week, Kiki Bertens and Angelique Kerber.

Halep’s first final appearance since August guaranteed she will rise one spot to No. 2 in the rankings on Monday.