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Murray heads into French Open in confident form on clay

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PARIS —¬†Andy Murray heads into the French Open buoyed by his form on clay, especially after handing top-ranked Novak Djokovic a stinging defeat recently.

Murray lost to Djokovic in last year’s semifinals at Roland Garros, but not before he frustrated the Serb by battling back from two sets down to force a decider.

Djokovic is well placed to highlight the improvements in the second-seeded Murray’s game, having lost 6-3, 6-3 to him in the Italian Open final last weekend.

“Second serve is one of the parts of his game that he was dedicated to. He did have some progress there,” Djokovic said on Friday. “He gets more depth and more speed on the second serve, which of course helps him a lot.”

Murray’s Grand Slam titles were on grass at Wimbledon in 2013 and on hard court at the U.S. Open in 2012, the year he also won the Olympics on grass, at Wimbledon.

Even though only three of his 36 career titles have been on clay, they have all been in the last 14 months.

Last year, Murray won back-to-back clay titles at Munich and Madrid, where he routed nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2 in the final.

He opened this season on clay by reaching the Monte Carlo semifinals, where he lost in three sets to Nadal.

Defending his Madrid title, he beat Nadal 7-5, 6-4 in the semifinals before losing a three-set final to Djokovic – then gained revenge for that in Rome, celebrating his 29th birthday in style with a resounding win.

It was no mean feat, given that Djokovic is 119-9 overall since the start of 2015, a .930 winning percentage, while earning 16 titles. This year, Djokovic is 37-3 with a tour-high five titles.

But Djokovic was not surprised by the intensity of Murray’s play.

“I’ve known Andy for a very long time. Things are different now when we are No. 1 and No. 2 in the world than they were five or 10 years ago, when we even played doubles together in the Australian Open,” said Djokovic, who turns 29 on Sunday. “Our practice sessions are like official matches. Honestly, we practiced in Madrid recently and we played a set and a half. We both felt like we played a match.”

Djokovic and Murray will play a much bigger match if they meet as seeded in the June 5 final.

The likelihood of that looks more favorable than in previous years given the absence of 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, who pulled out on Thursday after failing to shake off a back problem, Nadal’s struggles to get back to his best level on clay, and the inconsistent form of defending champion Stan Wawrinka.

Murray, a three-time semifinalist at Roland Garros, faces Czech qualifier Radek Stepanek in the first round.

“That’s tough, they have won three matches here,” Murray said when earlier asked about facing players who have come through the qualifying rounds. “They are probably feeling pretty good about their condition, and comfortable on the courts.”

Murray recently split with coach Amelie Mauresmo, and is in no hurry to find a new one.

“I have spoken a little bit to my team about it, but I haven’t spoken to anyone (else) yet,” Murray said. “Things obviously are going well just now, so no need to rush into anything.”

Venus Williams advances, No. 4 Simona Halep out on Australian Open’s first day

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 16:  Venus Williams of the United States celebrates winning her first round match against Kateryna Kozlova of the Ukraine on day one of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Venus Williams went onto Rod Laver Arena right after Shelby Rogers’ upset win over fourth-seeded Simona Halep, a result which sent the former French Open finalist out in the first round of the Australian Open again.

Back-to-back first-round exits at the season’s first major was not how Williams planned to mark her 73rd Grand Slam tournament.

The 36-year-old Williams made it two wins from two for American women on the center court at Melbourne Park on the first day, twice rallying from a break down in the first set to beat Kateryna Kozlova 7-6 (5), 7-5.

The seven-time major winner lost in the first round of the Australian Open last year to eventual semifinalist Johanna Konta. Despite her 48 unforced errors, Williams made a more positive start this time.

“It’s never easy playing the first round – you’re just trying to find the rhythm,” Williams said. “She played amazing. It’s very satisfying to get through a match against an opponent who is on fire.”

Rogers caused the first upset of the tournament, and did it on the center court, with her 6-3, 6-1 win over Halep.

Playing just her second main draw match ever at the Australian Open, the No. 52-ranked Rogers broke the 2014 French Open finalist’s serve four times. It was the second year in a row that Halep lost in the first round at Melbourne Park, and the fourth time overall.

Rogers made a surprising run to the French Open quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion Garbine Muguruza last year, when she was ranked No. 108, but only advanced to the second round at one other tournament in 2016.

Her only previous win against a top 10 player was in 2014, when she beat then No. 8-ranked Eugenie Bouchard in Montreal, but the run at Roland Garros gave her confidence.

“The biggest thing I took away from that was just that I can compete with the top players in the world and I’m good enough,” Rogers said. “So I have definitely carried that away from the French Open and just been enjoying it a little bit. There has been a lot of positive feedback, which has been nice.”

Halep, a two-time quarterfinalist in Australia, said she’d been hampered by pain in her left knee that was compounded by the pressure of the match.

“Definitely (Rogers) played well. I think she played very high standard,” Halep said. “She was aggressive, and she hit very strong.”

Seventh-seeded Muguruza saved a set point in the first set, needed a medical timeout and had to fend off three break-point chances at 1-4 in the second set before advancing with a 7-5, 6-4 win over Marina Erakovic.

Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig raced through her opening match, beating Patricia Tig 6-0, 6-1, and No. 20 Zhang Shuai and No. 27 Irina-Camelia Begu also advanced.

Australian teenager Destanee Aiava’s milestone match ended in a 6-3, 7-6 (4) loss to German qualifier Mona Barthel. The 16-year-old Melbourne high school student became the first player born in this millennium to play a main draw match at a major.

In two all-U.S. matches, Samantha Crawford defeated Lauren Davis 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 and Alison Riske beat Madison Brengle 7-5, 6-3.

Two other seeded players lost early women’s matches, with Varvara Lepchenko beating No. 19 Kiki Bertens 7-5, 7-6 (5) and former No. 1-ranked Jelena Jankovic beating No. 26 Laura Siegemund 6-1, 1-6, 6-4.

On the men’s side, fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori needed 3 hours, 34 minutes to beat Andrey Kuznetsov 7-5, 1-6, 6-4, 7-6 (6), 6-2.

There were two early retirements. No. 10-seeded Tomas Berdych, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist, was leading 6-1 when Luca Vanni retired from their match, and Jeremy Chardy was leading 4-0 when Nicolas Almagro retired with an injured right calf muscle in the first set.

No. 27 Bernard Tomic and No. 29 Viktor Troicki advanced along with No. 31 Sam Querrey, who beat Quentin Halys 6-7 (10), 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-4, and Ryan Harrison.

New look: Murray, Kerber start Australian Open as top seeds

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) It’s new and exciting for Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber, entering a Grand Slam tournament with the No. 1 in front of their names.

Both reached the top of the rankings for the first time near the end of 2016, ending long reigns by Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.

And so they’ll open their Australian Open campaigns on Rod Laver Arena on day one – both against Ukrainians.

Murray, a five-time runner-up, opens his pursuit of a first Australian title against Illya Marchenko in the last day match on the main show court. Kerber opens the night session against Lesia Tsurenko. She’ll be followed on court by Roger Federer, who is returning from six months on the sidelines.

The `one-round-at-a-time’ cliche is well worn in tennis. For Kerber, though, it’s pertinent. Seeded seventh last year, the left-handed German had to save a match point in the first round against Misaki Doi. Spurred on by that, she went on to beat Serena Williams in the final and claim her first Grand Slam title. She added a second major at the U.S. Open and ascended to the No 1 ranking.

“I think this point where I was match point down, that was the important point for my career,” Kerber said Sunday, speaking of her first-round escape against Doi. “You never know (if) I lost the match, what would have happened.”

It gave her the freedom to play without pressure, and that made all the difference.

“When I’m looking back, I was feeling that I got a second chance to stay in the tournament,” she said. “I was playing since then without expectation … just enjoying everything.”

Kerber can hang on to the top ranking by reaching to the final here, but she’s already feeling there’s more to defend than her title.

“It’s a new challenge for me, for sure,” she said. But, “We are starting from zero here. I have to be ready from the first round again.

“I will try to not put too much expectation and pressure on myself. I mean, I will try to do it like last year – that was the way I had my success.”

Record-chasing, six-time champions Djokovic and Williams, seeded No. 2 and anchoring the bottom half of the men’s and women’s draws, won’t be in action until day two. Djokovic is aiming to be the first man to win seven Australian titles. Serena Williams is chasing an Open-era record 23rd major title.

Newly-engaged Williams hasn’t wanted to talk about the record, being a little bit superstitious. Williams is concentrating on her first-round match against Belinda Bencic, who was seeded 12th here last year and who beat her in Toronto in 2015.

While Serena has to wait, the Williams family will be represented on Rod Laver Arena on Monday by her older sister, Venus. The 13th-seeded Venus Williams will play against Kateryna Kozlova following fourth-seeded Simona Halep’s opener against Shelby Rogers.

French Open champion Garbine Muguruza starts play on Margaret Court Arena against Marina Erakovic, and U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka opens the night session on the second show court.

Fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori gets things underway against Andrey Kuznetsov on Hisense Arena, where Nick Kyrgios will make his return to the tour against Gastao Elias.

The 21-year-old Kyrgios finished 2016 under a ban in a season overshadowed by clashes with officials and fans and by the tanking at the Shanghai Masters which led to an eight-week suspension.

The ban was reduced to three weeks when Kyrgios agreed to consult a sports psychologist, allowing to warmup for the Australian Open at the Hopman Cup.

That’s where Federer made his return from six months out to give his injured left knee time to heal. The 17-time major winner didn’t play after Wimbledon and his ranking slid to No. 17 by this week. That resulted in him getting a tougher draw than usual at the tournament he has won four times, and where he has reached the semifinals in 12 of the last 13 years. If results go with rankings, he’ll play two qualifiers before a potential third-round match against No. 10 Tomas Berdych. Nishikori and Murray are also in his quarter.

Federer will open against another 35-year-old veteran, former No. 8-ranked Jurgen Melzer.

“That’s the part of the draw I care most about because of having not been playing,” Federer said.

Wild-card entry Destanee Aiava, a 16-year-old Melbourne high school student, is set to become the first player born in this millennium to play a main draw match at a Grand Slam when she meets German qualifier Mona Barthel on Show Court 2.