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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.”

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.”