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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 gets his revenge over Tsitsipas to reach Rome final

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ROME (AP) After losing in the semifinals of three straight clay-court tournaments, Rafael Nadal looked more like his old, dominant self when he beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-4 Saturday to reach the Italian Open final.

It was a measure of revenge for Nadal after losing to Tsitsipas in three sets at this stage in Madrid last week. The victory should also restore Nadal’s confidence as he seeks a record-extending 12th title at the French Open starting next weekend.

“I’m playing better every match, every weekend,” Nadal said.

Aiming for a ninth trophy in Rome, Nadal’s opponent in Sunday’s final will be either Novak Djokovic or Diego Schwartzman, who were playing later.

Nadal is in the middle of his longest title drought to begin a season since he came onto the scene in 2004. His last trophy came in Toronto last August.

The crowd attempted to encourage Tsitsipas with chants of “Tsi-Tsi-Tsi; Pas-Pas-Pas” but the 20-year-old Greek player couldn’t keep up with Nadal on the long rallies – even though he didn’t play a day earlier after Roger Federer withdrew from the quarterfinals.

Conditions were much slower than on the high-altitude court in Madrid, which favored Nadal and made it tougher for Tsitsipas to execute his attacking game.

Midway through the first set, Nadal produced an awesome forehand winner up the line on the run, drawing a loud roar from the packed Campo Centrale crowd.

Nadal broke Tsitsipas’ serve early in both sets.

In the women’s tournament, Johanna Konta rallied past sixth-seeded Kiki Bertens 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 in nearly three hours to reach the biggest clay-court final of her career.

Konta’s only previous final on clay came recently in Rabat, Morocco, where she lost the title match to Maria Sakkari.

Konta could get a rematch with Sakkari if the Greek qualifier beats fourth-seeded Karolina Pliskova in the other semifinal.

Midway through the first set, Konta surprised Bertens with a drop shot winner during a baseline rally, causing Bertens to fall on her stomach to the clay as she rapidly changed directions. Then in the next game, Konta ran down a drop shot and produced an angled winner.

Bertens was coming off the Madrid Open title.

“She played really smart with the drop shots,” Bertens said. “I was all the time getting myself together and trying to push for more energy. But it was not there.”

The 42nd-ranked Konta served for the first set at 5-4 but was broken at love. But Bertens double faulted to let Konta serve for the second set and Konta got an early break in the third.

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John Isner out of French Open with injury

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PARIS — John Isner has pulled out of the French Open because of an injured left foot, ending his streak of 24 consecutive appearances at Grand Slam tournaments.

The 34-year-old Isner announced his withdrawal Friday on Twitter.

He is ranked No. 11, the top American man, but has not competed since hurting his foot during the Miami Open final March 31.

Isner was a Wimbledon semifinalist last year, his best Grand Slam performance. He hasn’t missed a major since the 2013 Australian Open.

He’s reached the fourth round at Roland Garros three times, including in 2018, and is one of only two men to push 11-time champion Rafael Nadal to a fifth set there.

Isner is best known for winning the longest match in tennis history, 70-68 in the fifth set against Nicolas Mahut in Wimbledon’s first round in 2010. The match lasted more than 11 hours over three days.