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.

Serena Williams returning to competition for US Fed Cup team

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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) The U.S. Tennis Association says Serena Williams will return to competition for the first time in more than a year at the country’s Fed Cup matches against the Netherlands next month.

Williams has not played an official match since winning the Australian Open in January 2017 for her 23rd Grand Slam singles title. She was pregnant during that tournament and gave birth to a daughter on Sept. 1.

Joining Williams on U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi’s roster announced Tuesday is older sister Venus, a seven-time major champion. The siblings have not played on the Fed Cup team together in three years.

Also on the team: CoCo Vandeweghe, a semifinalist at the Australian Open and U.S. Open last year. A fourth member of the U.S. squad will be announced next week.

The U.S. won last year’s Fed Cup.

The matches against the Netherlands will be held on an indoor hard court in Ashville, North Carolina, on Feb. 10-11.

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

Injured Nadal out of Australian Open; Cilic into semifinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) An injured and visibly struggling Rafael Nadal retired while trailing in the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal match against Marin Cilic.

Top-ranked Nadal fended off five break points in the last game before Cilic broke his serve, then the 16-time major winner went to shake hands with the umpire and his opponent, and angrily hurled his headband into his equipment bag.

No. 6-seeded Cilic advanced to his first semifinal in Australia since 2010 with a score of 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 2-0, retired.

Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open champion, will next play No. 49-ranked Kyle Edmund, who beat No. 3-ranked Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to reach a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time.

Nadal limped into a news conference about a half-hour later, still wincing when he stepped up onto a platform. He said he felt muscle pain in his upper right leg in the third set but played through it. In the fourth set, chasing a drop shot, he felt the pain get worse “but didn’t realize how bad.”

“Tough moments -not (for) the first time here,” he said. “I’m a positive person, but today is an opportunity lost to be in a semifinal for a Grand Slam and fight for an important title for me.

“It’s really tough to accept.”

Nadal said he’d have medical scans Wednesday to determine the exact location and extent of the injury, which he could only describe as being high on his right leg but not in the hip.

“Unbelievable performance from both of us and really unfortunate for Rafa,” Cilic said. “He’s such an unbelievable competitor. He always gives his best … it’s very unfortunate for him to finish this way.”

It was only the second time Nadal had retired during a Grand Slam match – the last time was also an Australian Open quarterfinal, in 2010 against Andy Murray.

On Tuesday night, he needed a medical timeout after going down 4-1 in the fourth set for treatment on his leg.

Nadal returned but was clearly bothered by the injury, limping and taking as much time as possible as he tried to stretch between points.

He called the trainer again after losing the fourth set, and lasted only two further games.

Cilic had only previously beaten Nadal once in their six previous matches – in their first match at Beijing in 2009.

Nadal had a delayed start to the season because of an injured right knee, but appeared to be in good form through the first four rounds. He now hasn’t won back-to-back Australian Open quarterfinals since 2008 and ’09, the year he won his only Australian title.

“I worked hard to be here,” said Nadal, who skipped tournaments in Abu Dhabi and Brisbane, Australia, while his knee recovered at the start of the season. “We did all the things that we believed were the right things to do.”

His absence also means there’s only one of last year’s singles finalists remaining in the tournament. Roger Federer, who beat Nadal in five sets last year, is playing Tomas Berdych in a quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Serena Williams didn’t defend her title, deciding she hadn’t had enough time to prepare following the birth of her first child last September. Her older sister, Venus Williams, was beaten in the first round.

On top of that, six-time champion Novak Djokovic was upset in the fourth round.

There’ll be a British man in the Australian Open semifinals for the seventh time in nine years, but it won’t be five-time finalist Murray – who skipped the season-opening tournament to have surgery on his hip.

Edmund had never played in a major quarterfinal, had never won five consecutive matches at tour level, had lost both of his previous matches against Dimitrov and had never beaten a top five player.

He checked all those boxes on Rod Laver Arena.

“I am loving it right now, just the way I’m playing,” Edmund said. “My first Grand Slam semifinal. First time I played on one of the biggest courts in the world. To beat a quality of player like Grigor. They’re great feelings. So, yeah, I just try to enjoy it as much as possible.”

After breaking Dimitrov’s serve in the ninth game of the fourth set, Edmund set up match point with an ace. Then he had to wait before a video challenge confirmed that Dimitrov’s last shot – a floating backhand – was out.

“I just held my nerve in that last game and prayed that last ball would be out,” Edmund said. It was out. And so was Dimitrov, who lost a five-set semifinal here last year to Nadal.

“Everything went his way today,” Dimitrov said. “It’s hard to hide a disappointment. It hurts, and so it should.”

Edmund, who had a first-round upset over U.S. Open finalist Kevin Anderson, is now the center of attention for the tennis-loving British public.

“I know what it feels like to be Andy Murray the last eight years,” he said. “It’s probably the first time I’ve done well on my own, so there’s more attention there. Of course you take it in stride.”

Elise Mertens is facing a similar experience.

Mertens upset fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-0 to extend her winning streak to 10 matches, becoming the first Belgian since Kim Clijsters in 2012 to reach the semifinals here.

Mertens, who trains at Clijsters’ academy, said: “Kim, thanks for watching. I’m trying to be in your footsteps this week.”

In the semis, she’ll play either second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki or Carla Suarez Navarro.