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John Isner back in Miami Open final

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Despite a change in venue, the Miami Open has a familiar look, with John Isner back in the final.

The defending champion moved closer to another title by hitting 21 aces Friday and defeating 18-year-old Canadian qualifier Felix Auger-Aliassime 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4).

Next is a Sunday showdown in the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, where the tournament moved this year from its longtime home of Key Biscayne.

“The venue is absolutely fantastic,” said Isner, a big football fan. “To play in the stadium – the Super Bowl will be here next year – it’s pretty amazing.”

Isner’s opponent in the final will be the winner of Friday night’s match between three-time champion Roger Federer and another Canadian teenager, 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov. Now 33, Isner won his only ATP Masters title a year ago on Key Biscayne.

“It’s amazing,” Isner told the crowd after his latest win. “I said before the tournament the chances were I would not defend my title. I’m very, very happy.”

The women’s final Saturday will match No. 5 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic against No. 12 Ashleigh Barty of Australia.

Auger-Aliassime served for both sets in the semifinal, but Isner broke each time by taking advantage of double-faults, and then used his big serve to control the tiebreakers.

Nine of his 10 sets in the tournament have gone to a tiebreaker, and he has won each one. But Auger-Aliassime figured neither set should have gotten to that point.

“It’s a chance you can’t miss, serving two times for the set,” he said. “Just terrible.”

Auger-Aliassime, 5-0 previously against top 20 opponents, was the youngest male semifinalist in the tournament’s 35-year history. He’ll jump to a career-best No. 33 in next week’s rankings.

But he’ll need steadier play at pivotal moments to fulfill his potential as a future Grand Slam champion.

Isner lost serve for only the third time in the tournament to fall behind early. Auger-Aliassime served at 5-4 but double-faulted into the net three times, including on break point.

There was a repeat in the second set. Auger-Aliassime served at 5-3, double-faulted once and then hit a swinging volley into the net on break point.

The teenager blamed nerves.

“It’s like I caught a virus or something,” he said. “I couldn’t put a second serve in anymore. That’s just very tough to swallow.”

Each lapse led to a tiebreaker, where Isner has been unbeatable of late after arriving at Miami with a modest 7-10 record in tiebreakers this year.

He finished strong against Auger-Aliassime, whacking three aces in the final tiebreaker, the last on a 140 mph serve that was his fastest of the match.

“I’m playing well,” Isner said. “Keep it up and see what happens.”

Pliskova wins Italian Open for biggest clay title of career

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ROME (AP) – Karolina Pliskova captured the biggest clay-court title of her career by beating Johanna Konta 6-3, 6-4 Sunday in the Italian Open final.

Adding to a very consistent year from the 2016 U.S. Open runner-up, the victory will move Pliskova up to No. 2 in the rankings and makes her one of the contenders for the French Open, which starts next weekend.

“I just hope to take the tennis I was playing here to Paris,” Pliskova said. “For sure there’s going to be a chance for me if I play this way.”

Pliskova also reached the Australian Open semifinals and the Miami Open final after opening this season with a title in Brisbane, Australia. But she lost in the second round of her previous two tournaments on clay in Stuttgart, Germany, and Madrid.

“Nobody really gave me chance for this tournament – even me,” Pliskova said. “Before the tournament, I was not super confident, not thinking about the final at all. I was just happy with every match which I played. So it’s little bit like a miracle for me.”

The unseeded Konta appeared nervous at the start, double faulting then landing a backhand into the net to hand Pliskova a break in her opening service game.

In the second set, Pliskova used a swinging forehand volley putaway to break for a 4-3 lead and never looked back.

“It’s always tough playing Karolina,” Konta said. “There’s rarely really a rhythm to the match. She plays with big shots, quite flat, and big serves. It can feel sometimes you’re fighting an uphill battle. That was the case today.”

After converting her third championship point, Pliskova went over and slapped hands with Conchita Martinez, the four-time Rome champion who she recently named her head coach. Pliskova then asked Martinez and the rest of her team to come down onto the court for her victory celebration.

“She loved clay so she knows exactly what I should do,” Pliskova said of Martinez. “There were small differences: movement, maybe to put more topspin on the balls, use drop shots – which I never use, but I start little bit, and to mix also the serves. … I know she loved this tournament. I think she prayed so I could win today.”

Back on top: Nadal beats Djokovic for 9th Italian Open title

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ROME (AP) Rafael Nadal is right back where he wants to be.

After losing in the semifinals of three straight clay-court tournaments, Nadal dominated for stretches against his longtime rival, Novak Djokovic, in a 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 win Sunday for a record-extending ninth Italian Open title.

It marked the first time in an Open Era-record 54 meetings, and in their 142nd set against each other, that Nadal won a set against Djokovic without conceding a game – otherwise known as a bagel.

The timing for Nadal’s return to form could not have been more opportune, as he will seek a record-extending 12th title at the French Open starting next weekend.

“Winning a title is important but for me the most important thing is feel myself competitive, feel myself healthy,” Nadal said. “Then with the feeling that I am improving. I know if I’m able to reach my level you can win, you can lose, but normally I’m going to have my chances, especially on this surface.”

Top-ranked Djokovic, meanwhile, appeared exhausted after spending more than 5 1/2 hours on court against Juan Martin del Potro and Diego Schwartzman the previous two days.

Djokovic was also coming off the Madrid Open title last week.

“I don’t want to talk about fatigue or things like that,” Djokovic said. “Rafa was simply too strong today.”

In the women’s final earlier, Karolina Pliskova captured the biggest clay-court trophy of her career by beating Johanna Konta 6-3, 6-4.

The Foro Italico crowd continually tried to encourage Djokovic with chants of “Vai Nole!” – Go Nole! – but the top-ranked Serb struggled with his overhead and drop shots.

Midway through the second set, Nadal chased down a lob with an over-the-shoulder shot and Djokovic’s ensuing overhead landed in the net to conclude a long point.

Djokovic again netted an overhead in the next game and then kicked the ball in frustration when he missed a drop shot attempt late in the second.

But Djokovic hung around in the second and converted his first set point when a looping forehand from Nadal sailed wide for his first break of the match. As he walked to his chair after winning the second set, Djokovic waved his arms to get the crowd behind him.

However, Djokovic didn’t have much left in the tank.

When Nadal pushed Djokovic deep into the corner in the opening game of the third set and Djokovic’s desperation lob sailed long to hand Nadal a break, Djokovic smashed his racket to the clay three times in frustration and received a warning from the chair umpire.

Djokovic won only 29 percent of the points on his second serve and committed 39 unforced errors to Nadal’s 17. Also, Nadal won 23 of the 31 rallies with nine or more shots.

PLISKOVA NO. 2

Pliskova’s victory will move her up to No. 2 in the rankings and makes her one of the contenders for Roland Garros.

“I just hope to take the tennis I was playing here to Paris,” Pliskova said. “For sure there’s going to be a chance for me if I play this way.”

The 2016 U.S. Open runner-up, Pliskova also reached the Australian Open semifinals and the Miami Open final after opening this season with a title in Brisbane, Australia. But she lost in the second round of her previous two tournaments on clay in Stuttgart, Germany, and Madrid.

“Nobody really gave me chance for this tournament – even me,” Pliskova said. “Before the tournament, I was not super confident, not thinking about the final at all. I was just happy with every match which I played. So it’s little bit like a miracle for me.”

The unseeded Konta appeared nervous at the start, double faulting then landing a backhand into the net to hand Pliskova a break in her opening service game.

In the second set, Pliskova used a swinging forehand volley putaway to break for a 4-3 lead and never looked back.

“It’s always tough playing Karolina,” Konta said. “There’s rarely really a rhythm to the match. She plays with big shots, quite flat, and big serves. It can feel sometimes you’re fighting an uphill battle. That was the case today.”

After converting her third championship point, Pliskova went over and slapped hands with Conchita Martinez, the four-time Rome champion who she recently named her head coach. Pliskova then asked Martinez and the rest of her team to come down onto the court for her victory celebration.

“She loved clay so she knows exactly what I should do,” Pliskova said of Martinez. “There were small differences: movement, maybe to put more topspin on the balls, use drop shots – which I never use, but I start little bit, and to mix also the serves. … I know she loved this tournament. I think she prayed so I could win today.”