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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.”

Nadal doesn’t see himself skipping tournaments like Federer

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MONACO (AP) For now, Rafael Nadal doesn’t see himself skipping any major tournaments the way Roger Federer has been sitting out the French Open.

The veterans are back at the top of world tennis, with Nadal needing to win the Monte Carlo Masters this week to avoid losing his top ranking once again to Federer in their seemingly eternal battle for tennis supremacy.

For the second consecutive season, the 36-year-old Federer is skipping the entire clay-court season in order to be at his best on grass.

After coming back from injury to win the Australian Open last year, Federer skipped the clay-court season, won Wimbledon, and retained his Melbourne crown to extend his record tally to 20 majors.

The Swiss star is keeping his aging body fresher by playing a bit less – avoiding Nadal on clay at Roland Garros or elsewhere – and it is working for him.

But Nadal still thinks he can play a full schedule.

“There (are) tournaments that I can’t imagine missing on purpose, because (they are) tournaments that I love to play,” Nadal said on Wednesday. “I don’t see myself missing Monte Carlo on purpose. I don’t see myself missing Wimbledon on purpose, or the U.S. Open, or Australian, or Rome. These kind of events, I don’t see missing (them).”

The 31-year-old Spaniard recently returned from a right hip injury which forced him to retire during the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal against Marin Cilic.

With his 32nd birthday coming up on June 3 – during the French Open – the 16-time Grand Slam champion accepts he may think differently when he gets closer to Federer’s age.

“Of course, when you get older, you need to adjust a little bit more the efforts and the calendar. But for me (it) is difficult to say I don’t play, for example, grass, or I don’t play hard (courts),” Nadal said. “(It) is not in my plan, but I can’t say `never’ because I cannot predict what’s going to be in the future.”

Nadal is chasing an 11th title at both Monte Carlo and Roland Garros, which begins on May 27.

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

Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

Thiem reaches third round at Monte Carlo

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MONACO — Dominic Thiem saved a match point and beat Andrey Rublev of Russia 5-7, 7-5, 7-5 in the second round of the Monte Carlo Masters on Tuesday.

Rublev was serving for the match at 5-4, 40-30 but hit a forehand narrowly wide. Fifth-seeded Thiem broke him with backhand pass down the line and held for 6-5.

The Austrian was 15-40 up on Rublev’s serve and clinched victory on his first match point, when Rublev double-faulted with a weak serve into the net.

“I was 10 centimeters from being out of the tournament,” a relieved Thiem said. “But I’m happy that I played two hours and 40 (minutes).”

Thiem has reached the French Open semifinals for the past two years. He next meets 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic or Borna Coric of Croatia, who play their second-round match on Wednesday.

“I’m looking forward to watching Djokovic and Coric in front of the TV, and then playing the winner on Thursday,” Thiem said.

In the second round later Tuesday, fourth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria faced Pierre-Hugues Herbert and seventh-seeded Lucas Pouille played Mischa Zverev.

In remaining first-round play, there were wins for Gilles Simon of France, Marco Cecchinato of Italy and Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany.