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Serena falls to Pliskova in Aussie Open quarters

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Four times, Serena Williams was only one point — a single point — from closing out a victory in the Australian Open quarterfinals.

On the first such chance, at 5-1, 40-30 in the third set, she turned her left ankle awkwardly. The owner of the best serve in the sport would lose every point she served the rest of the way.

And so it was that a startling reversal and result would follow Wednesday at Melbourne, with Williams dropping the last six games of a 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 loss to No. 7 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic.

“I can’t say that I choked on those match points,” Williams said. “She literally played her best tennis ever on those shots.”

The 37-year-old American didn’t call for a trainer during the match and later wouldn’t blame the ankle for the way everything changed down the stretch, saying afterward that it “seems to be fine.”

But instead of Williams moving closer to an eighth championship at the Australian Open and record-tying 24th Grand Slam title overall, it is Pliskova who will continue the pursuit of her first major trophy.

“I was almost in the locker room,” Pliskova told the Rod Laver Arena crowd, “but now I’m standing here as the winner.”

In the semifinals, Pliskova will face No. 4-seeded Naomi Osaka, who advanced by beating No. 6 Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-1 earlier Wednesday. The other women’s semifinal will be two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova against unseeded American Danielle Collins.

In the men’s quarterfinals Wednesday, 2016 Wimbledon runner-up Milos Raonic met No. 28 Lucas Pouille, before 14-time major champion Novak Djokovic was scheduled to face 2014 U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori at night.

Williams’ surprising departure scuttled what would have been a much-anticipated rematch against Osaka, who beat her in the chaotic U.S. Open final last September.

This defeat is the earliest in Australia for Williams since way back in 2014, when she exited with a fourth-round loss to Ana Ivanovic. Since then? She won the tournament in 2015, lost in the final in 2016, and won again in 2017 while pregnant, before missing last year’s edition a few months after the birth of her daughter.

As for chasing Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 24 Slam trophies in singles, Williams said: “It hasn’t happened yet, but I feel like it’s going to happen.”

The match against Pliskova was played under a stifling sun, with the temperature around 80 degrees (25 Celsius). Williams — coming off an intense three-set victory over No. 1 Simona Halep in the fourth round — often stepped into the patches of shade behind each baseline.

She did not start well, not well at all. Her mistakes were mounting and deficit was growing.

In the first set alone, Williams made more than twice as many unforced errors as her opponent, 11-5, a pattern that would continue throughout. By the end, the margin was 37-15.

Looking increasingly frustrated, Williams would yell at herself after mistakes or gesture as if to say, “That’s NOT how I should be hitting the ball!” Add it all up, and Pliskova led by a set and a break at 3-2 in the second.

Only then did Williams get going. From there, she immediately earned her first break point of the match and converted it to get to 3-all, beginning a run in which she claimed nine of 11 games.

“You don’t really feel,” Pliskova said, “like you’re going to win this match.”

Serving for the victory at 5-1, 40-30, Williams was called for a foot fault — reminiscent of an infamous such ruling at the U.S. Open a decade ago. During the ensuing point Wednesday, Williams twisted her left ankle and dumped a forehand into the net.

She grabbed at her foot afterward, then double-faulted and would go on to cede that game.

Not a big deal, right? She still had a sizable lead.

Except that three more match points would follow while Pliskova served, and she saved each one.

“There’s nothing I did wrong on those match points. I didn’t do anything wrong. I stayed aggressive,” Williams said. “She just literally hit the lines on some of them.”

Williams would again serve for the match at 5-3 — and again get broken. The owner of the most feared and respected serve in women’s tennis was broken for a third time in a row at 5-all, and Pliskova was on her way.

“She got a little bit shaky in the end,” Pliskova said. “So I took my chances. And I won.”

Osaka will carry a 12-match Grand Slam winning streak into the semifinals.

The 21-year-old from Japan moved closer to a second consecutive major championship by parlaying her aggressive and powerful style into a 31-11 edge in winners against Svitolina.

“For me, right now, I just try to keep looking forward. So I’m not really satisfied. Like, I am happy that I’m here, but at the same time, I want to keep going,” said Osaka, who never had been past the fourth round at the Australian Open. “There is more matches to win.”

Joao Souza provisionally suspended

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LONDON — Brazilian tennis player Joao Souza has been provisionally suspended again amid a corruption investigation by the Tennis Integrity Unit.

Souza had already been provisionally suspended on March 29 but was reinstated on April 8 following a successful appeal.

The TIU says that the provisional suspension has been put back in place “following consideration of additional evidence submitted by the TIU,” adding that no more appeals will be accepted.

No further details were given for the reason of the suspension.

The 30-year old Souza is currently ranked No. 422, having reached a career-high of No. 69 in 2015.

Also in 2015, Souza played in the longest Davis Cup singles match ever, losing to Leonardo Mayer of Argentina 15-13 in the fifth set after 6 hours, 42 minutes.

The TIU is a joint initiative of the Grand Slam Board, the International Tennis Federation and the ATP and the WTA tours.

Medvedev shocks Djokovic to reach Monte Carlo semis

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MONACO – An erratic Novak Djokovic suffered a surprise 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 defeat against Daniil Medvedev in the Monte Carlo Masters quarterfinals Friday.

The 10th-seeded Russian was appearing in the last eight of a Masters tournament for the first time but was not overawed. In fact, it was the top-ranked Djokovic who made the most mistakes. The two-time champion looked out of sorts in tricky conditions and produced 47 unforced errors.

“On a windy day like today, conditions are changing every game,” Djokovic said. “It’s tough to find rhythm and he doesn’t give you much rhythm. He was very patient and played well tactically.”

After failing to serve out the match, when his Serbian opponent broke back to 5-2 down, Medvedev broke for the fifth time to seal a memorable victory.

Djokovic double-faulted at 30-30 to give Medvedev his first match point and a backhand winner secured a first win against his top-ranked rival at the fourth attempt, and a first victory against a No. 1.

“It was amazing,” Medvedev said. “He played worse than before and I am gaining more experience. He was not so good in the first set and made a lot of mistakes.”

Medvedev twice had his thighs massaged during changeovers in the third set. “Cramp didn’t affect my game,” he said.

The 23-year-old Monaco resident next faces the unseeded Dusan Lajovic, who also reached a Masters semi for the first time when he beat Italian qualifier Lorenzo Sonego 6-4, 7-5.

Lajovic has not dropped a set at the clay-court event and is more surprised than anybody.

“I didn’t expect this. I was sick before the tournament and taking antibiotics,” the 28-year-old Serb said. “But it’s the best week of my career.”

The same goes for the 23-year-old Medvedev, who is ranked 14 and is chasing a fifth career title.

He had lost the three previous matches against Djokovic, including a tough four-setter in the fourth round of this year’s Australian Open.

“In Australia he was at his best, but I made him run for his win there,” said Medvedev.

Djokovic won that tournament to secure a third straight Grand Slam title and 15th overall, moving two behind Nadal and five adrift of Roger Federer’s record haul of 20.

But Djokovic has now failed to reach the last four in three straight tournaments, after also falling short at Indian Wells and Miami.

“I am lacking that determination to go for shots on some points,” he said.

At times it looked like Djokovic would take control and he clinched the second set with two aces. But his shot-making was below its usual high standards and his drop shot rarely worked.

Nadal has won at Monte Carlo a record 11 times. The second-ranked Spaniard plays the unseeded Guido Pella of Argentina later.

The other match is between No. 9 Borna Coric of Croatia and No.13 Fabio Fognini of Italy.