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No. 1 Djokovic to face No. 2 Nadal for Australian Open title

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic was about as perfect as can be in his semifinal at Rod Laver Arena. Didn’t miss much. Almost couldn’t, really.

It was a performance so flawless, so fantastic, that it was easy to feel as if only one man on the planet might have a chance of preventing Djokovic from claiming a record seventh Australian Open title: Rafael Nadal. As it happens, that is who he’ll face in Sunday’s final.

Djokovic never relented, not for a moment, while making an unheard-of total of five unforced errors against an overmatched Lucas Pouille en route to a 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 semifinal victory that lasted less than 1½ hours.

“I guess you’re driven by some force that takes over you, and you feel divine. You feel like in a different dimension,” Djokovic said. “It’s quite an awesome feeling that we all try to reach and stay in. Probably the biggest challenge, I think, is how to repeat that, how to stay there for as long as you possibly can.”

This was as good as he gets. As good as it gets.

“When he’s playing like this,” the 28th-seeded Pouille said, “yeah, he’s the best in the world, for sure.”

Now Djokovic will line up against his old rival, Nadal, for the 53rd time on tour, eighth in a Grand Slam final.

It will be the No. 1-ranked Djokovic — owner of 14 Grand Slam titles, including the past two — against No. 2 Nadal, who’s won 17 majors. Roger Federer, with 20, is the only man whose total is higher.

“I would definitely want to buy a ticket,” Djokovic told the crowd.

He holds a 27-25 edge over Nadal in their head-to-head series; Nadal leads 4-3 in Slam finals. The only other time they met with the Australian Open trophy on the line, in 2012, Djokovic won 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in 5 hours, 53 minutes, making it the longest Grand Slam title match in history.

“Once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Djokovic called that one, “and hopefully the outcome can be the same for me.”

Given how well both men are playing at the moment, this showdown shapes up as another potential classic.

“Rafa,” Pouille said, “looks pretty amazing, too.”

Indeed, Nadal was superb while beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 on Thursday night and has yet to drop a set in the tournament as he seeks his second title in Melbourne.

A day later, Djokovic played as if setting out to say, “Anything you can do, I can do better.”

This was Djokovic’s 34th Grand Slam semifinal and he’s now won his last 10. Pouille, a 24-year-old Frenchman coached by former women’s No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo, was making his debut at this stage.

The plan, Pouille explained afterward, was to try to be the aggressor and take charge of points.

So much for that.

“I was trying to find a solution, but couldn’t find any,” Pouille said. “I couldn’t put a strategy in place.”

The wide gulf in experience and accomplishments showed on a cloudy, breezy evening as Djokovic improved to 7-0 in semifinals at Melbourne Park.

He is also unbeaten so far in Australian Open finals, sharing the men’s mark of six titles with Roy Emerson and Federer.

“Everything worked the way I imagined it before the match,” Djokovic said. “And even more so.”

Other than one face-down pratfall he took when he slipped while trying to change direction, what didn’t go right for Djokovic on Friday?

He won 25 of 34 points on Pouille’s second serve and broke the guy seven times.

He won 45 of 53 points he served, never facing a single break chance.

Even managed to deliver a second-serve ace.

That he made so few mistakes while taking enough risk to accumulate 24 winners was remarkable.

It took Pouille more than a half-hour to merely grab one game, and spectators roared, likely relieved at the prospect of a more competitive, not to mention longer, match.

Never materialized.

It’s a far cry from the 2018 Australian Open, when Djokovic lost in the fourth round while dealing with pain in his right elbow.

Soon after, he had surgery. Then began the climb back to the top.

“It was highly unlikely 12 months ago that I would be where I am today, a year later,” Djokovic said. “I’ve said it before, but I always have plenty of belief in myself, and the self-belief always prevails.”

Nadal beats Ferrer to reach Barcelona Open quarterfinals

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BARCELONA, Spain — Rafael Nadal looked closer to his clay-court best again as he beat David Ferrer 6-3, 6-3 on Thursday to reach the quarterfinals of the Barcelona Open.

The 11-time Barcelona champion saved four of five break points and broke four times in what could have been his last meeting with Ferrer, who is retiring after the Madrid Open next month. It was a sign of improvement for Nadal, who lost in the semifinals in Monte Carlo last week and then needed three sets to get past Leonard Mayer in his opening match in Barcelona.

“This match was important for me,” Nadal said. “Yesterday I had a tough match. I took a step forward and was able to play with more energy.”

The top-seeded Nadal will next face either Stefanos Tsitsipas, last year’s runner-up, or Jan-Lennard Struff.

Nadal was up 5-3 in the first set before play was stopped for a rain delay. He continued to dictate the match when play resumed, serving out the set and breaking Ferrer’s next service game.

Ferrer saved three match points before finally sending a forehand into the net to give Nadal the win.

The 37-year-old Ferrer was making his last appearance at the Barcelona Open and could not hold back the tears when he received an ovation from the audience. He placed his pink headband on the court as a mark that he had played his last match here.

“I am happy to be able to finish this tournament on the center court, playing against Nadal. I gave it my all,” Ferrer said.

Also, third-seeded Dominic Thiem broke Jaume Munar five times to earn a 7-5, 6-1 victory. Fourth-seeded Kei Nishikori, who won the tournament in 2014 and 2015, brushed off Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-1, 6-3.

Grigor Dimitrov was beaten 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2) by Nicolas Jarry, who will meet Daniil Medvedev after he beat American Mackenzie McDonald 6-3, 6-2.

Osaka opens clay campaign by beating Hsieh in Stuttgart

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STUTTGART, Germany — Top-ranked Naomi Osaka opened her clay-court season by beating Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan 6-4, 6-3, on Thursday to reach the Porsche Grand Prix quarterfinals.

Osaka hit 22 winners and converted three of her six break points to seal the win in 1 hour, 24 minutes and set up a meeting with Donna Vekic of Croatia.

After saving two break points early, it was an unusually smooth victory for Osaka over Hsieh. She needed three sets to get past the Taiwanese veteran en route to her Australian Open victory and then lost to her at the Miami Open last month.

“I felt like this surface is more suited for me (than Hsieh),” Osaka said. “I was sort of in my plan. So, I just felt like I executed what I was trying to do.”

Two-time Stuttgart champion Angelique Kerber also advanced by beating fellow German Andrea Petkovic 6-2, 6-4. The fifth-seeded Kerber saved two break points to hold for 2-2 in the first set and then reeled off the next four games to take control. She then earned a decisive break for 4-3 in the second before closing out the win with her fourth match point.

Kerber will face sixth-seeded Kiki Bertens, who served 20 aces to rally for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Belinda Bencic.

No. 7 Anastasija Sevastova also advanced by beating former champion Laura Siegemund of Germany 6-4, 6-3 to set up a quarterfinal against Petra Kvitova, who advanced on Wednesday.

Vekic dispatched Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, 6-1, 7-5, earlier on Thursday.