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Petra Kvitova back in Grand Slam semifinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Petra Kvitova watched the Australian Open from a distance two years ago, a month after she was injured in a violent home invasion.

Then she lost in the first round last year, and conceded she hadn’t returned to a standard that earned her two Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon.

Until now, that is. So she knew the question was coming, perhaps overdue. Still, after her 6-1, 6-4 win over Ash Barty on Tuesday night, the question in an on-court interview reduced her to tears.

She was asked if she’d ever doubted, ever lost belief that she’d be back in this moment . She had just qualified for her first major semifinal since her run to the 2014 Wimbledon title. There was barely a dry eye in the arena.

As she paused to take in a breath and wipe away tears, the encouragement and cheers from the crowd intensified and reached a crescendo after almost 20 seconds to allow Kvitova to respond to Jim Courier’s question.

“Thank you guys. Um, no, really,” she said. “I didn’t really imagine to me playing on this great stadium and play with the best.”

Later she explained the tears were “a mix of emotions of everything I’ve been through.”

“Sometimes I’m not really recognizing anything from the past,” she said. “But when Jim asked that, it wasn’t really easy for me to kind of see myself being in a semifinal after everything.”

Since her return to the majors at the French Open in 2017, she has had two first-round exits, two second-round losess, two in the third. The highlight was a run to the 2017 U.S. Open quarterfinals.

Now she’s on a 10-match winning run, having also beaten Barty for the title in Sydney in the week leading up to the Australian Open, and feeling like she’s back in the big time.

“For sure. I’m calling it my `second career.’ So it’s the first semifinal of the `second career,”‘ Kvitova said. “But, yeah, it took me a while, for sure. I never really played so well on the Grand Slams, so I’m happy this time it’s different. I’m really enjoying it.”

And she really is. Her five wins have been in straight sets in an average time of about 1 hour, 6 minutes.

The difference is fewer nerves, more job satisfaction and more freedom.

“I’m seeing life a little bit differently compared with before. I know it’s just the sport, it’s just the tennis,” she said. “Always when you’re doing something, you want to do best. Of course, losing, it hurts a lot because you are doing everything for it.

“On the other hand … I’m always looking back and see what I achieved from the time (before the violent attack). It’s always both sides. But in the end, always the life wins.”

She’ll play Danielle Collins next, and is one of the few people who entered the tournament who could have predicted the American’s run so far.

Collins has a 5-5 career record in Grand Slam matches. It was 0-5 when she got to Melbourne this month. She has taken out three seeded players, including a 6-0, 6-2 win over three-time major champion Angelique Kerber in the fourth round.

In the quarterfinals, she came back to overpower Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 – conceding only three points in the third as she raced to a 5-0 lead.

Collins took Kvitova to three long sets at the Brisbane International, her first match of the season. So Kvitova, who like Kerber is left-handed, is wary.

“I won it, but it was over three hours,” Kvitova said of her semifinal rival. “She’s very fearless and she’s playing very, very aggressive.”

Collins said she had followed Kvitova’s career, and admired the 28-year-old Czech player, but was ready to make her win No. 6 in her hot streak.

“She’s an incredible champion, has gone through a lot,” Collins said. “We had a really great battle a couple weeks ago, one of the best matches I’ve played. I didn’t even win that match. So very familiar with her. Looking forward to the next match.”

Kvitova recalled Collins having a chance to serve out that match in Brisbane, and said she would need to be better to win again.

But on second thought, she said: “It’s a semifinal, so, who cares?”

“I always wanted to come back and play on the highest level, compete with the best, play the Grand Slams, actually be very deep in the Grand Slam, which is happening,” Kvitova said of her second-time-around run to the semifinals. “Yeah, it just took me a bit to the tears, but it was happy tears, for sure.”

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.

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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.