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Nadal loses to Tsitsipas in Madrid as clay slump continues

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MADRID — Rafael Nadal’s slump on clay continued with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 loss to ninth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in the semifinals of the Madrid Open on Saturday.

It was the third straight semifinal elimination for Nadal, adding to his worst start to the clay swing since 2015.

Tsitsipas will try to win his third title of the year in a final against top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who defeated Dominic Thiem 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) and will have a chance to tie Nadal for the most titles in Master 1000 tournaments with 33.

In the women’s final, Kiki Bertens beat two-time Madrid champion Simona Halep 6-4, 6-4.

The second-ranked Nadal, still seeking his first title of the season, had also failed to make it to the final in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, tournaments he had won the last three consecutive seasons. He lost to Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo and to Thiem in Barcelona. This is the first time since 2004 that Nadal had arrived in Madrid without a title in the first five months of the season.

The 20-year-old Tsitsipas converted on his fourth match point to close out the victory on the Magic Box center court.

“I’m really happy that I managed to keep my nerves down and fight back. Probably one of the toughest victories I’ve had in my life,” Tsitsipas said. “Adding variety and being unpredictable was the key today.”

Tsitsipas will be playing in his fourth final of the season and will have a chance to become the first player to win three titles this year, adding to his triumphs in Estoril and Marseille. He is the tour’s winningest player in 2019 with 27 wins.

Nadal, who was yet to lose a set in Madrid this year, had beaten Tsitsipas all three previous times they played, without losing a set, including in the semifinals of the Australian Open.

“I really liked my fighting spirit,” Tsitsipas said. “I went on the court and I was mentally prepared for a fight.”

DJOKOVIC ON TOP

Djokovic can add to his Australian Open title on Sunday thanks to his confidence-boosting win over an in-form Thiem.

“Dominic is one of the best tennis players in the world at this moment, especially on this surface, so this was a very big win for me,” Djokovic said.

The fifth-seeded Thiem, who beat Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, had won two straight against Djokovic and was trying to make his third straight Madrid final following losses to Rafael Nadal in 2017 and Alexander Zverev in 2018. The Austrian was also attempting to become the first player to win three titles this season, adding to triumphs in Indian Wells and Barcelona.

“I thought he was the favorite coming into this match because of his win in Barcelona and the way he played winning against Roger yesterday,” said Djokovic, who will be trying to add to his Madrid titles from 2011 and 2016.

“I was still kind of trying to find my best game on clay,” Djokovic said. “These are exactly the matches that I need. I’m very, very pleased with this win.”

Thiem played well in both sets but Djokovic prevailed in both tiebreakers.

“I think that to beat these players, Novak, or Rafa, you need to have this little luck, this momentum going for you, and that was not the case today,” Thiem said. “Some break points for me were a little bit unlucky and some of them I missed, which I usually don’t do.”

BERTENS WINS

Last year’s runner-up Bertens defeated Halep for her second title of the year, adding to her victory in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“I am really proud of this week. I played some good tennis,” said Bertens, who next week will reach a career-high No. 4 ranking.

The seventh-ranked Dutch became the first woman to win the Madrid title without dropping a set. She had victories over three Grand Slam champions in the Spanish capital – Jelena Ostapenko, Sloane Stephens and Petra Kvitova. Bertens lost to Kvitova in last year’s final.

Halep, winner in Madrid in 2016 and 2017, lost the chance to take over the No. 1 ranking from Naomi Osaka.

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.”