Djokovic’s French Open bid begins with Monte Carlo defense

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MONACO (AP) Novak Djokovic’s bid to finally master clay and win the elusive French Open title starts with his title defense at the Monte Carlo Masters, where Rafael Nadal once crushed the competition.

The top-ranked Serb has won 11 Grand Slams but the French Open continues to elude him, having lost the final to Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros last year and twice to Nadal.

“I don’t like the word `obsession’ because it doesn’t come from the right emotion,” Djokovic told reporters Sunday. “But of course being the only Grand Slam I haven’t won gives me even more incentive to give my best there this year.”

Few would bet against Djokovic winning in Paris given his red-hot form but part of his renowned discipline involves stopping from looking that far ahead.

“When you need to operate as a human machine, you need to do that only in the present moment and the present time,” said Djokovic, who sets aside time to perfect his inner balance. “Not Buddhism, specifically, but mindfulness, this holistic approach that allows me to maximize my being from every aspect. Not just physical but mental, emotional, spiritual. I try to be disciplined with all these different exercises that I do on a daily level.”

Nadal, who lost to Djokovic in the Monte Carlo semifinals last year, won eight straight titles here from 2005-12 until Djokovic ended the Spaniard’s run in the 2013 final.

Winning Monte Carlo was always the springboard that led to victory in Paris, and he thinks it will be tough to stop Djokovic doing the same.

Since beating Djokovic in the 2013 U.S. Open final, Nadal has lost 10 of their 11 meetings – the only win in that time coming when he beat Djokovic in the French Open final two years ago.

“He’s going to be the favorite for every tournament (until) somebody shows something different,” Nadal said Sunday with an air of inevitability. “He is (playing) with an unbelievable dynamic.”

Since 2015, Djokovic has reached 19 finals in 21 tournaments, winning 15 and losing four finals.

In late February, he lost to Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in the Dubai quarterfinals – where Djokovic retired with of an eye infection after losing the first set.

That leaves big-serving Croat Ivo Karolovic as the only other to beat him outside of a final in that time, winning a hard-fought quarterfinal on outdoor hard courts in Doha, Qatar, in January 2015.

Djokovic’s recent win at the Miami Masters was a record 28th in Masters – one more than Nadal – and saw him equal Andre Agassi’s six titles in Miami as well as clinching the Indian Wells-Miami double for a third successive year.

“From one side, yes, I am pleasantly surprised with what I have achieved in last two years,” Djokovic said. “From the other side, I’ve always expected myself to be at this level. Everybody peaks at different stages of their careers and for me it’s right now.”

Nadal has been swept away by the meteoric ascension of Djokovic, who is closing in on $100 million in career prize money.

The 28-year-old Djokovic, a year younger than Nadal, has 63 career titles. He is only four behind Nadal, who has yet to win one this year and won just three last year compared with 10 in 2013.

Djokovic leads Nadal 25-23 in their career head-to-heads; has a 23-22 lead over Roger Federer and a dominant 22-9 record against two-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray.

Djokovic did not drop a set in Miami and only dropped one set on his way to a second Monte Carlo success last year, against Czech Tomas Berdych in the final.

“What he’s achieving right now is just exceptional. It’s just the same as when Roger was at his peak,” Berdych said. “One season I think (Federer) lost three or four matches so it’s quite similar to Novak last year and like Nadal did one year. Within 10 years each of them took three years of that domination.”

Djokovic is in the same half of the draw as Federer here and has a bye to the second round – where he faces Czech Jiri Vesely or Russian Teymuraz Gabashvili.

Azarenka aims to come back in time for Wimbledon

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MOSCOW — Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka says she is planning to return to competition before Wimbledon.

Azarenka, who was ranked No. 1 for seven months in 2012 and 2013, went on a break last July to have her first child. She had previously been targeting a return at the July 31-Aug. 6 Bank of the West Classic in California.

In a statement on Twitter, the Belarusian says “my training has been progressing well and I feel ready to start competing,” adding that she plans “to play one of the grass court events prior to Wimbledon.”

Wimbledon starts July 3.

Azarenka won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013, and has twice reached the Wimbledon semifinals.

Djokovic announces Agassi will coach him at French Open

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ROME —¬†Novak Djokovic is joining forces with Andre Agassi in an effort to return to No. 1.

Djokovic announced Sunday that Agassi will coach him at the French Open, which starts next Sunday.

“I spoke to Andre the last couple weeks on the phone, and we decided to get together in Paris,” Djokovic said. “So he’s going to be there. We’ll see what (the) future brings.

“We are both excited to work together and see where it takes us. We don’t have any long-term commitment. It’s just us trying to get to know each other in Paris a little bit,” Djokovic added. “He will not stay the whole tournament. He’s going to stay only to a certain time, and then we’ll see after that what’s going to happen.”

The second-ranked Djokovic split with longtime coach Marian Vajda and two other team members – fitness coach Gebhard Phil Gritsch, and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic – at the start of the month.

Agassi, who retired in 2006, won eight Grand Slam titles.

Djokovic has won 12 Grand Slams.

“Andre is someone that I have tremendous respect for as a person and as a player,” Djokovic said. “He has been through everything that I’m going through. On the court he understands the game amazingly well. I am enjoying every conversation that I have with him.

“But also, on the other hand, he’s someone that nurtures the family values, philanthropy work. He’s a very humble man, is very educated. He’s a person that can contribute to my life on and off the court a lot. I’m very excited to see what is ahead of us.”

The pairing is the latest in a series of top players working with former standouts, from Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl, Rafael Nadal and Carlos Moya, and Kei Nishikori and Michael Chang.

Djokovic was coached by Boris Becker the last three seasons, but they split last year.

Vajda started working with Djokovic in 2006.

Djokovic lost his No. 1 ranking to Andy Murray last year after a slump in form following his French Open triumph.

He lost in the third round at Wimbledon, his earliest defeat in a Grand Slam in seven years, lost in the first round at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, reached the final of the U.S. Open, and lost early again at the Australian Open.

Djokovic finished 2016 at No. 2, his current ranking. He’s won only one of his last 11 tournaments.

While Agassi has not coached a top player before, Djokovic said his record as a player and spokesman of the game was enough to convince him.

“He’s a legend of our sport,” Djokovic said. “He’s made a mark in this sport forever. He’s won everything there is to win in tennis.

“He was a revolutionary player because he had this charisma, he had this approach to tennis and to life that was quite different from others. That’s why he was so interesting.”

Agassi has already been offering advice on the phone.

“He’s been definitely following up closely all the matches, the big matches, especially on the TV,” Djokovic said. “So he knows players, he knows everyone that I was playing against in (the) last couple of weeks, so we talked before every match.

Djokovic added, “I already feel like we are very kind of close to each other and creating this nice vibe.”