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Nadal confident arriving in Madrid despite disappointing run

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MADRID — Rafael Nadal hasn’t started the clay-court season with these many setbacks in four years.

Not since 2015 had Nadal arrived at the Madrid Open without having won a title either in Monte Carlo or in Barcelona, the tournaments that mark the start of clay swing in Europe.

That year, Nadal was coming off a series of injuries and ended not reaching the final of either tournament. He also didn’t win the title in Madrid, Rome and the French Open, dropping out of the top five in the rankings for the first time in a decade.

Now things are different, though. Despite the disappointing results, the second-ranked Nadal says there is no reason for concern.

“My confidence is back,” Nadal said after the semifinal loss to Dominic Thiem in Barcelona, which ended his run of three straight titles in the tournament. “I really believe that I made very good improvements to create a good base to try to achieve my goals during the next couple of weeks.”

Nadal will be trying to win his third straight French Open title – and 12th overall – at Roland Garros in June.

He lost to Fabio Fognini in the semifinals at Monte Carlo, where he also had won three titles in a row. The only other time Nadal hadn’t won either in Monte Carlo or in Barcelona was in 2014.

“Against Fognini I played the worst match probably in 14 years on clay. (Against Thiem) I played a good match. I was competitive and I enjoyed the match. I really felt competitive for the first time in a way that I want to feel myself. I am happy and I am confident that I made a big improvement.”

The 17-time Grand Slam winner has won a clay-court title in each of the last 15 seasons. He is an eight-time finalist in Madrid, with his last of five titles coming in 2017. He was defeated by Thiem in the quarterfinals last year.

Nadal will start this year’s campaign against the winner of the match between young Canadians Felix Auger-Aliassime or Denis Shapovalov, a semifinalist last year. Auger-Aliassime is one of the sensations on tour this season, having reached the final in Rio and the semifinals in Miami.

The other half of the Madrid draw has top-seeded Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who will be making his return to clay-court tournaments after two seasons. The 37-year-old Federer, a three-time champion in Madrid, is preparing to make his first French Open appearance since 2015.

Federer hasn’t played on clay since Rome in 2016, but is looking for his third title of the season to add to his triumphs in Dubai and Miami. The only other player with two titles this season is Thiem, who beat Federer in the Indian Wells final. Federer and Thiem could meet in the quarterfinals in Madrid.

The defending champion in Madrid is Alexander Zverev, the German who did not drop his serve in his winning campaign last year. He will start this year’s tournament against David Ferrer, the veteran Spaniard who is retiring following the tournament in Madrid.

Petra Kvitova will defend her title in the women’s side. The second-seeded Czech is a three-time champion in Madrid and the tournament’s most successful women’s player with 27 wins and six losses. Naomi Osaka is the top-seed player this year in Madrid.

Wild-card entry Tipsarevic advances at Geneva Open

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GENEVA (AP) Former top-10 player Janko Tipsarevic used his wild-card entry to beat Peter Gojowczyk of Germany 7-5, 7-5 in the Geneva Open first round on Monday.

Now ranked No. 317, the 34-year-old Tipsarevic is back in ATP Tour main draws after missing the 2018 season for hamstring injuries to heal.

Fifth-seeded Radu Albot advanced to the second round on a day when two seeded players lost in the final week of clay-court warmups for the French Open.

Albot beat qualifier Lorenzo Sonego 7-6 (6), 7-6 (3), after 92nd-ranked Hugo Dellien beat eighth-seeded Andreas Seppi 6-1, 3-6, 6-4, and seventh-seeded Matthew Ebden lost to Nicolas Jarry of Chile 6-2, 7-6 (4).

Rain cut short play and gave former No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov a day off after playing through two qualifying rounds.

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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.”