Egypt's Mohamed Safwat one victory away from historic Challenger title in Anning

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New heights: For Mohamed Safwat.

Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat is one victory away from claiming a historic Challenger title following an impressive three-set success over third-seeded Jordan Thompson in Anning on Saturday.

The 27-year-old from Mansoura is looking to become the first Egyptian to win a Challenger trophy since Tamer El Sawy’s triumph in 1996, when he lifted the Bronx crown.

Safwat had entered the Anning Challenger carrying a five-match losing streak but turned things around with a series of battling wins this week.

“I wouldn’t say I was having a tough couple of weeks. I was always playing close matches, I’ve made a lot of changes and changes take time to settle in. I took the positives from them and just kept on working and looking forward,” Safwat told Sport360 of his tight losses over the past few weeks.

His 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Australian world No. 98 Thompson on Saturday was his third three-setter of the tournament.

“I think I handled the big moments of the match pretty solid,” Safwat said of his win over Thompson. “I managed to play them well and I think that was the key. The key moments were 4-3 in the third set and the beginning of the third set, I think those were the important ones.”

Safwat’s exploits in China will see him rise from 229 to a new career-high ranking on Monday. He will stand at around 176 if he loses the final and could hit 154 if he clinches the title. His previous career-high ranking is 187.

This is Safwat’s second appearance in a Challenger final and first since September 2016, when he finished as runner-up in Kenitra.

“It’s always a good feeling (to reach a final). I’m happy for the progress I made in my performance. It’s very good to be in the final of a big Challenger,” added Safwat.

“I’ve been playing okay so far. Tomorrow it’s another challenge and I’ll see how things will go, I’ll try to find a way for tomorrow and I hope I can manage to go through.”

Standing in his way in Sunday’s final is Indian world No.260 Prajanesh Gunneswaran, who is also searching for a first Challenger trophy.

Safwat and Gunneswaran have never faced off before.

The Anning Challenger is a $150,000 tournament and should Safwat win, he would pocket $21,600 in prize money, which would be the biggest pay day of his professional career.

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Maria Sharapova crashes out in first round of Stuttgart Open

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Sharapova crashed out at the same tournament where she returned from suspension last year.

Maria Sharapova crashed out in the opening round of the Stuttgart Grand Prix on Tuesday as French sixth seed Caroline Garcia staged a fightback to win 3-6, 7-6 (8/6), 6-4.

“This was not the result that I wanted, but I can take a lot out of this match,” Sharapova said. “I’ve not competed for a few weeks, but I played pretty solid and did all of the right things.

“I served well in the first set but had a few doubles at the wrong time. Physically, I felt quite strong.”

The five-time Grand Slam champion, who turned 31 last week, looked to be in control as she made just two unforced errors in winning the opening set.

But Garcia, who had never beaten the Russian in four previous meetings – they last played in Madrid three years ago – rallied in the second set as she came from 4-2 down and and levelled the contest in a tie-break.

The 41st-ranked Sharapova returned to tennis in Stuttgart exactly a year ago after finishing a 15-month doping ban for meldonium and reached the semi-finals.

She claimed an early break in the third set, but lost it in the third game as Garcia tightened the screw on the crowd favourite.

Sharapova was broken to trail 4-5 and put her opponent under momentary pressure at 0-30 as Garcia tried to serve out the win.

But the world number seven succeeded on her second match point as Sharapova struck a return wide to exit after two and three-quarter hours of battle on the indoor clay court.

Sharapova said her game might have been compromised by weeks of forearm injury recovery after last playing in Indian Wells six weeks ago.

“Overall I didn’t react as well as I could against a server like her, she got lot of free points,” Sharapova said.

“I didn’t get enough balls back. We were both playing fast, and aggressive.

“I need to be smarter in the winning position.”

Garcia will next take on Ukrainian qualifier Marta Kostyuk who scored a 6-4, 6-1 defeat of Antonia Lottner.

The youngster, who doesn’t turn 16 until just before the start of Wimbledon, was joined in round two by Czech fifth seed Karolina Pliskova, who beat Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens 6-2, 6-2.

Kostyuk made a breakthrough with a surprise third-round showing at the Australian Open as a qualifier, finally losing to compatriot Elina Svitolina.

World number 158 Kostyuk has since claimed a second-tier title in Burnie, Australia and reached a final in Zhuhai, China in March.

Her defeat of Lottner, ranked 155th, took just under 90 minutes, with the teenager breaking four times while losing serve only once.

Pliskova, who has been on site for a week training, is playing Stuttgart for the third consecutive year, after losing to eventual champion Laura Siegemund in the 2017 quarter-finals.

“I felt the best today and for sure it was not her best match but that was not much to do with me,” Pliskova said.

“The serve was good and I got a lot of free points, my shots were working – there was no problem from my side today.”

The Czech dominated Bertens, with the winner firing six aces and breaking four times.

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Rafael Nadal eases past Kei Nishikori to claim 11th Monte Carlo crown - Numbers behind his latest clay success

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Rafael Nadal’s ‘Operation Undecima’ has got off to a successful start as the world No. 1 defeated Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-2 to lift an 11th Monte Carlo trophy on Sunday.

This clay campaign, Nadal is also bidding for an 11th Barcelona crown and an 11th Roland Garros title, having completed an unprecedented ‘Decima’ in all three tournaments last season.

Nadal, who struggled with a knee injury end of last year, suffered a hip problem in January that sidelined him for more than two months. Nishikori, who was out of action with a wrist injury from August 2017 until the end of January 2018, was playing his first final since Buenos Aires in February last season.

“I want to congratulate Kei for a great week. Always difficult to be back from injuries, I know Kei had a tough one last year and he’s back. I’m happy to see you again playing well, congrats to your team too and I wish you all the best for the rest of the season,” Nadal told the Japanese former US Open runner-up during the trophy ceremony.

Addressing his own team, Nadal added: “We had some tough moments during the last five months after a couple of injuries in a row. It’s great to have a group of great people behind me. Just I can say thank you very much for being there and supporting me when I really need it.”

Here’s a look at the numbers behind Nadal’s latest clay exploits.

PICKING UP WHERE HE LEFT OFF

It’s almost like he was never gone! Playing his first tournament since last January’s Australian Open following a psoas injury that forced him to retire during the quarter-finals there, Nadal defended his Monte Carlo title to extend his winning streak that started at Roland Garros last year.

The Mallorcan has now won a career-best 36 consecutive sets on the red dirt. As Nishikori aptly put it during the trophy ceremony on Sunday, he congratulated Nadal on “dominating too much”.

CRUISE CONTROL

Nadal won the Monte Carlo title without dropping a set for the fifth time in his career and dropped just 21 games in the five matches he contested this week. He never lost more than four games in a set all week.

It’s remarkable considering his list of victims looks like this: R2 – Aljaz Bedene, R3 – Karen Khachanov, QF – Dominic Thiem, SF – Grigor Dimitrov, F – Kei Nishikori.

MASTER OF THE MASTERS

Nadal’s triumph on Sunday saw him break the record of most Masters 1000 trophies won by claiming a 31st overall. He was previously sharing the record with Novak Djokovic, who has 30 Masters titles to his name.

SHAKY FOREHAND, NO PROBLEM

Nadal’s forehand may have deserted him a bit in his last two matches, where he hit a combined 21 unforced errors off that side in the semi-finals and final. But it ultimately didn’t matter as he proved clinical when he needed it to the most.

STILL ON TOP

The 31-year-old’s successful title defence in the Principality means that he has managed to hold off Roger Federer from reclaiming the No. 1 ranking for at least one more week. Nadal needed to win in Monaco to extend his reign at the top to a 171st week overall.

GATHERING STEAM

Having played just five matches in the first three months of the season, Nadal’s 2018 campaign has picked up thanks to two wins in Davis Cup in Valencia earlier this month and his trophy run in Monte Carlo. He is now 11-1 this year and enters Barcelona on a seven-match winning streak.

CLAYTASTIC

Monte Carlo is Nadal’s 54th clay title from 76 won overall. His winning record on the surface throughout his career is currently 91.9 per cent .

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