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Novak Djokovic tops Rafael Nadal in another Wimbledon marathon semifinal

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Is Novak Djokovic back? Certainly looked like it Friday night and Saturday afternoon at Wimbledon.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion outlasted top-ranked Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 3-6, 10-8 to reach Sunday’s final at the All England Club, where the Serb plays South African Kevin Anderson.

“It’s hard to pick the words,” said Djokovic, the 12th seed who reached his first Grand Slam final since the 2016 U.S. Open. “I mean, I’m just going through things that flash back the last 15 months and everything I’ve been through to get here, to get to the final and to win against the best player in the world. … I’m just overwhelmed.

“These kind of matches you live for, you work for.”

Djokovic and Nadal, two men with a combined 29 Grand Slam singles titles, played the first three sets Friday — after Anderson and John Isner‘s 6-hour, 36-minute epic — before Wimbledon’s 11 p.m. curfew suspended the match overnight.

The Centre Court roof remained closed for Saturday’s resumption because at least one of the players (Djokovic, presumably) preferred it.

They were on court for 5 hours, 14 minutes total, which would have been the longest Wimbledon semifinal in history before Friday.

“Very special,” said Djokovic, who improved to 27-25 against Nadal in the most prolific men’s rivalry in the 50-year Open Era. “It really could have gone either way, I think. … It was very clear that very few things separated the two players. Basically, until the last shot I didn’t know that I was going to win.”

Djokovic made his first Grand Slam final since the end of a two-year stretch where the Serb was the world’s top player. He once held all four Grand Slam titles, something neither Roger Federer nor Nadal has done.

Djokovic’s struggles the last two years accompanied off-court life changes.

He cited “private issues” in summer 2016, split from coach Boris Becker that fall, was coached by Andre Agassi for less than a year, missed the 2017 U.S. Open for an elbow injury, then underwent surgery to fix it in January.

He has won two tournaments in the last two years and none in the last 12 months, his longest drought since his first of 68 ATP titles at age 19 in 2006.

But on Friday and Saturday, Djokovic packaged mental strength, physical endurance, shot-making talent and big-stage guts like we haven’t seen in two years.

Now Djokovic, the lowest-ranked man in a Wimbledon final since Mark Philippoussis in 2003, is favored against the eighth seed Anderson to win his fourth Wimbledon. Djokovic has won their last five matches, including at Wimbledon in 2015.

Anderson, the oldest first-time Wimbledon finalist in the 50-year Open Era, eyes his first Grand Slam title after playing a combined 10 hours, 50 minutes between the quarterfinals (upsetting Roger Federer 13-11 in the fifth) and semifinals.

“Hopefully we can first of all play, both of us,” Djokovic said in exhaustion. “It’s been a roller-coaster ride for him in the last couple of rounds, but he had a day off, which means a lot. I wish I could have one. … It’s an incredible achievement for me after what I’ve been through. I’m trying to digest that.”

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WATCH LIVE: Simone Biles returns to U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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Simone Biles‘ comeback continues at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Friday night.

Biles enters her second meet since the Rio Olympics, where she earned four gold medals.

She is a clear favorite to win her fifth U.S. all-around title, which would break the record she currently shares.

LIVE STREAM: U.S. Gym Championships — 8 p.m. ET (for Olympic Channel subscribers)

Biles showed her comeback was for real at her first meet back three weeks ago, winning the U.S. Classic despite an uneven bars fall. Her all-around score was the highest in the world since Rio.

Friday marks the fifth anniversary of Biles’ first national title, when she was a braces-wearing, first-year senior gymnast oozing with talent but also unproven. She became so dominant that the prevailing notion was that everyone else was competing in a non-Simone division.

A new generation of women go up against Biles in the two-day meet that concludes Sunday.

That includes Ragan Smith and Morgan Hurd, who won the U.S. and world all-around titles in Biles’ absence last year, and Riley McCusker, who led the U.S. Classic going into the final rotation.

Gymnasts are competing to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

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Ragan Smith defends U.S. gymnastics title, competing through pain

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BOSTON — When Ragan Smith won the U.S. all-around title last August, her margin of victory was greater than Simone Biles‘ average the previous four years.

At the world championships in October, Smith fell off the balance beam in qualifying and still posted the second-highest all-around score, just .001 off the lead. If Smith hit all four routines in the final, she would be crowned the world’s greatest gymnast of 2017 (during Biles’ break from the sport).

But as the all-around final began at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Smith crutched out of the training gym. She suffered three torn left ankle ligaments on a warm-up vault, according to the Dallas Morning News, that needed four to five months to heal.

Smith is expected to compete in the all-around at the U.S. Championships on Friday and Sunday (broadcast schedule here), looking to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

The ankle still hurts sometimes. So do her three or four broken toes. Smith doesn’t know the exact number because she doesn’t like to get medical check-ups before meets. She would think too much about the diagnosis.

In fact, Smith said she felt pain in practice every day for the last year.

“Everything starts hurting worse because we’re getting older,” said Smith, who turned 18 last week. Smith added that a coach joked to her recently, “You already have a 100-year-old body.” 

“Everybody I feel like has injuries here and there,” she said. “Everybody’s like banged up right now. We [gymnasts] are so strong mentally and physically that I feel like we push through it.”

Back home in the Dallas area, Smith marks her goals on a dry-erase board. The chief one for her two summer meets is this: Be the best Ragan I can be.

“That’s all I’m really striving for this competition,” she said Wednesday.

Smith did not do the all-around at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago, skipping floor exercise because she wants to debut it as a surprise this week. She called Classic “a practice run,” where her best result was third on beam.

Only two gymnasts per nation can compete in a world all-around final. If Biles is one of them, then Smith has to beat out Morgan Hurd (who won the 2017 World all-around title after Smith’s injury) and Riley McCusker (second to Biles at the U.S. Classic).

Smith, the youngest Rio Olympic alternate, is determined to compete on the elite level through 2020. She can take motivation from her bedroom wall and that dry-erase board, both of which had the same quote posted — “She believed she could so she did.”

“These coming up years, it’s definitely who’s in the game the longest. It’s definitely who’s not injured,” she said. “That’s pretty much who they pick, I feel like. You’re training your whole life for one year of gymnastics because that’s when you have to be at your highest peak. I definitely feel like it’s who’s in the game the longest and who can survive and who can help their body the best.”

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