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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.”

Top-seeded John Isner wins 3rd Hall of Fame title

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NEWPORT, R.I. — Top-seeded John Isner beat Australian qualifier Matthew Ebden 6-3, 7-6 (4) on Sunday for his third Hall of Fame Open title.

The hard-serving American also won the grass-court event in 2011 and 2012. He has 11th career titles, all at the ATP World Tour 250 level.

“It’s hard to win a tournament,” Isner said. “It’s no small feat to come out here and be the last man standing. I’m very happy about that. It’s been two years since I won a tournament, so I had that weighing on my mind.”

Isner became the second player to win an ATP title without facing a break point since records began in 1991. Tommy Haas also accomplished the feat in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2007.

“I’m very happy with how I played all week,” Isner said. “It was a perfect week and I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Ebden was playing his first tour-level final.

“It’s a lot of reward for a lot of hard work, a lot of years of sacrifice,” Ebden said. “It’s disappointing, but at the same time I have to be happy with my week.”

Roddick, Clijsters among Tennis Hall of Fame inductees

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NEWPORT, R.I. — Andy Roddick says jokingly he can now keep Roger Federer from a unanimous selection for the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

As a new inductee, Roddick gets to vote on future candidates. He jested ahead of his enshrinement on Saturday that he’ll use it to get back at Federer, who stood in his way during at least four Grand Slam finals.

Roddick joins inductees Kim Clijsters, six-time Paralympic medalist Monique Kalkman and journalist and historian Steve Flink. Tennis instructor and innovator Vic Braden was to be inducted posthumously.

Roddick won one Grand Slam and lost to Federer in the finals four times. He says he doesn’t ask himself what would have happened if he hadn’t come along at the same time of perhaps the greatest player.

He says the first text he got when he woke up Saturday was from Federer. Says Roddick: “He makes it extremely hard not to like him as a person.”