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.

Nadal beats Dimitrov, one win from record 31st Masters title

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MONACO (AP) Rafael Nadal remains on course for a record 31st Masters title after beating Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 6-1 in the Monte Carlo Masters semifinals on Saturday.

The top-ranked Spaniard never looked in trouble as he beat the fourth-seeded Bulgarian for the 11th time in 12 career meetings.

If Nadal wins Sunday’s final, he will earn a 76th career title and also keep his No. 1 ranking. Should he lose, Roger Federer will reclaim the top spot.

Nadal faces either third-seeded Alexander Zverev of Germany or Kei Nishikori of Japan, who play later Saturday.

In the opening game, Dimitrov came out firing. He pressured Nadal with two superb lobs, forcing a backhand smash wide from the Spaniard for deuce. But Nadal held a tight first game lasting eight minutes, and then broke Dimitrov for 2-0.

Dimitrov found his range, broke Nadal back and held for 3-3. The next two games were even, with Dimitrov matching Nadal in the rallies.

The 16-time Grand Slam champion held for 5-4 and then Dimitrov cracked, serving consecutive double faults and hitting a wild forehand long to trail 15-40. He saved one set point but Nadal was in ruthless mode and took the next chance.

It appeared that Nadal was gaining his usual momentum on clay – and two consecutive love breaks and three easy holds made it 5-0 to the Spaniard in the second set.

Dimitrov explained his collapse this way.

“I think I played smart against him. I kind of know his pattern a little bit better,” Dimitrov said. “But it was my fault when I got broken. Simple as that. Two double-faults, it’s just definitely not acceptable, especially when you play against him on that surface.”

Dimitrov finally held, drawing polite applause, but Nadal served out the match with ease. He clinched victory on his first match point when Dimitrov patted the ball wide following a brief exchange.

“You see me with a smile. I’m a positive person,” Dimitrov said. “Deep down, I’m hurt. I hate losing. Simple as that.”

Nadal shares the Masters record with Novak Djokovic, whose 30 wins include two here.

Nadal’s victory at Monte Carlo last year made him the first men’s tennis player in the Open era to win the same title 10 times. He then won a 10th title at Barcelona and the French Open.

 

Fed Cup: Stephens to open for US against France in semis

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AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France (AP) U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens will open play for the U.S. against Pauline Parmentier of France in the Fed Cup semifinals.

France No. 1 Kristina Mladenovic and CoCo Vandeweghe will follow on Saturday in the second singles at the new 6,700-capacity Arena Pays d’Aix. France has opted for an indoor clay court.

Mladenovic and Amandine Hesse are set to face Madison Keys and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the doubles on Sunday following the reverse singles.

France and the United States meet for a 14th time, with the Americans holding an 11-2 winning record. The French won their most recent meeting, in 2014.

Both teams are missing their highest-ranked player: No. 8 Venus Williams for the U.S., and No. 7 Caroline Garcia for France.

Germany is facing the Czech Republic in the other semifinal in Stuttgart.