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Kei Nishikori falls in Rome quarters

Kyodo, AP

Kei Nishikori fell to former world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the clay-court Italian Open on Friday, going down 2-6, 6-1, 6-3.

Nishikori, currently ranked 24th in the world, got off to a strong start against the 11th-seeded Serbian, nabbing unanswered breaks in the opening and fifth games to win the first set.

But 28-year-old Nishikori could not build on the lead as he failed to hold serve, winning his only game in the second set on a service break aided by a pair of double-faults by his opponent.

In the final set, Djokovic converted a crucial break in the seventh game and added another two games later to end the match in just under 2 hours and 22 minutes.

“It was definitely a match that I could have won. It’s too bad.

I just couldn’t get the important points,” Nishikori said.

Djokovic’s victory was his 12th straight over Nishikori, against whom he holds a career 13-2 record including a straight-sets win last week in Madrid.

“It was a fantastic match. I thought we went toe-to-toe all the way to the last shot. It was very close,” Djokovic said.

“I thought he (Nishikori) started terrific. He was flawless from both ends. He was playing so quick, it took me a bit of time to get used to his pace. The second set was great, and the third really could have gone either way.”

With the win, Djokovic booked a 51st meeting with Rafael Nadal in the semifinals on Saturday.

Nadal, who holds a record seven titles at the Foro Italico, overcame a poor first set and a partisan crowd to beat Fabio Fognini 4-6, 6-1, 6-2.

“Tomorrow is going to be the ultimate challenge on clay,” Djokovic said. “Beating Rafa is a really difficult thing to do on this surface. But, I’ve done it before.”

Djokovic leads Nadal 26-24 overall, but Nadal holds a 15-7 advantage on clay.

Nadal can replace Roger Federer at No. 1 if he lifts the Rome trophy for the first time since 2013. Federer is sitting out the clay season to prepare for Wimbledon, where he will bid for a record-extending 21st Grand Slam title.

Djokovic, who is returning from a persistent right elbow injury, hadn’t reached a semifinal since before Wimbledon last year.

“This is what I was looking forward to,” Djokovic said. “This is what I was hoping to achieve.”

In the other half of the draw, defending champion Alexander Zverev extended his winning streak to 12 matches with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory over ninth-seeded David Goffin. He’ll meet Australian Open finalist Marin Cilic, who beat 10th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta 6-3, 6-3.

In women’s action, Maria Sharapova required more than three hours to eliminate last year’s French Open winner, Jelena Ostapenko, 6-7 (6-8), 6-4, 7-5; and defending champion Elina Svitolina defeated Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-4 for her sixth straight victory over the former No. 1 player.

Svitolina will next face 26th-ranked Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, who beat Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki 6-3, 6-1.

Sharapova’s semifinal opponent will be Simona Halep, who advanced with a 6-2, 6-3 win over Caroline Garcia that ensures she will keep the No. 1 ranking for another week.

Fans were decidedly behind Fognini, Italy’s top player, and Nadal was under pressure when Fognini won five straight games to cancel out a 4-1 deficit and win the opening set.

“He played aggressive, a great level of tennis, creating a lot of winners and taking balls earlier,” Nadal said. “I felt the pressure a little bit and played a couple of bad games.”

But Fognini couldn’t keep up with Nadal’s consistency and heavy topspin on the red clay court and eventually was physically worn down.

“I tried to play more with my forehand and when I play aggressive with my forehand the backhand becomes better,” said Nadal, who sat out earlier this season with right knee and hip injuries. “It’s important to be able to change the tactics of the match.”

Fognini had tape applied under his left knee while trailing 3-2 in the third set due to a physical problem that has bothered him for weeks.