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Turning 29, Djokovic still chasing elusive French Open

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PARIS —¬†Novak Djokovic will be celebrating his 29th birthday when the French Open starts on Sunday. If nothing else, it underlines just how frustrating it has become for the top-ranked Serb to win the only major to elude him.

Djokovic, who has lost the past two finals here and three altogether, is playing his 12th tournament and would set a record for most appearances at Roland Garros before winning the title in the Open era. Four players – Stan Wawrinka last year, Roger Federer in 2009, Andre Agassi in 1999 and Andres Gomez in 1990 – all won on their 11th appearance. Goran Ivanisevic holds the Open era Grand Slam record of needing 14 attempts before winning Wimbledon in 2001.

Although Djokovic insists he is not “obsessed” with winning the elusive title, he may never get a better chance, because nine-time champion Rafael Nadal is still finding his best form on clay, Wawrinka has been erratic and the 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer is skipping the tournament to protect his troublesome back. Second-second Andy Murray could pose a serious threat, having beaten Djokovic in the Italian Open final last weekend.

“Of course I anticipate myself, as everybody else (does), to try to get my hands on this title this year,” Djokovic said. “Even if my career was done tomorrow, I made some achievements that I must be proud of. So that’s how I approach things. I don’t try to approach them from a point of view of being obsessed with this tournament or with any other tournament, for that matter.”

Federer has always been a huge fan’s favorite, wherever he plays, and the hard-to-please Parisian fans have warmly taken Nadal to their hearts since he won for the first time here as a scraggly-haired teenager in 2005.

Perhaps seeking that extra bit of energy to take him all the way, Djokovic clearly wants to get the French fans on his side.

This was evident on Saturday when, before starting his practice, he goofed around wearing a beret as he played the traditional French game called “petanque” – albeit with yellow tennis balls instead of those heavy metallic ones – and jokingly played around with a violin.

Or perhaps Djokovic is just trying to reduce the pressure and expectations. It’s not hard to see why because, since the start of 2015, he’s 119-9 overall, winning four majors and 16 titles – including a tour-leading five this year.

He has won 11 majors and could yet equal Nadal’s haul of 14 by the end of the year.

When Djokovic lost the 2014 French Open final to Nadal, the Spaniard was still the player to beat on clay.

That’s now changed. Despite Nadal winning the Monte Carlo Masters for a ninth time in April and following up with a ninth success at Barcelona to equal Guillermo Vilas’ record of 49 career clay-court titles, he is in Djokovic’s shadow, even on clay.

Djokovic has beaten him seven consecutive times since that 2014 final – crushing him in three sets in the quarterfinals here last year and beating him twice more on clay, most recently in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open.

Enticingly, they could meet in the semifinals this year, which would be their 50th meeting and on Nadal’s 30th birthday – not that Nadal needs any extra motivation.

Djokovic leads him 26-23 in head-to-heads and this is his equal-best winning streak against Nadal, having previously beaten him seven consecutive times – all of them in finals: six in 2011 and then the 2012 Australian Open.

Nadal’s first-round opponent will be big-serving Sam Groth, an Australian ranked 95th.

“He’s a difficult one,” said Nadal, who has never played Groth. “I know he’s going to be difficult to have breaks against.”

Djokovic faces 100th-ranked Lu Yen-hsun while Murray opens against veteran Radek Stepanek, and Wawrinka has a tricky first match against hard-hitting Czech Lukas Rosol.

Defending champion Serena Williams is bidding for her fourth Roland Garros title and needs one more major to equal Steffi Graf’s record for the Open era, and three more to match Margaret Smith Court’s all-time mark of 24 majors.

The 34-year-old American, who will open against 76th-ranked Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia, has never won back-to-back French Open titles.

Sunday’s first-round men’s play features fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan, No. 8 Milos Raonic of Canada and big-hitting Australian Nick Kyrgios, while on the women’s side, No. 5 Simona Halep of Romania, 11th-seeded Czech Lucie Safarova – last year’s runner-up – and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova are playing. Also, No. 15 John Isner and No. 19 Sloane Stephens are among nine Americans in action.

Serena Williams reaches 4th round without dropping a set

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Serena Williams is still on track in her bid to win a record 23rd Grand Slam title.

The six-time Australian Open winner beat fellow American Nicole Gibbs 6-1, 6-3 in the third round on Saturday, when she didn’t face a break point until she was serving for the match.

Dropping serve in that game was her only lapse in a match that then extended just beyond the hour – to 63 minutes to be precise. That made it one minute and one game longer than her only other match against Gibbs.

Williams started the tournament with difficult assignments in the first two rounds, but also got through those – against Belinda Bencic, with a career-high ranking of 7, and Lucie Safarova, a French Open finalist in 2015 – without dropping a set.

She has set the tone for the tournament. Williams will next play No. 16 Barbora Strycova, who beat No. 21 Caroline Garcia 6-2, 7-5.

Ekaterina Makarova led by a set and 4-0 but needed three sets and almost three hours to finally beat WTA Finals champion Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-3.

“An amazing fight,” Makarova said of her first win over sixth-seeded Cibulkova, the 2014 finalist at Melbourne Park. “I got, to be honest, a bit tight at 4-0 in the second set. But I’m still here. I love this Grand Slam.”

In a momentum-swing match featuring some long streaks of games and 11 service breaks, Makarova got the decisive break in the eighth game of the deciding set and closed it next.

Makarova will play either 2016 semifinalist Johanna Konta, who beat her in the fourth round here last year, or former No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki.

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni continued her unlikely run with a 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 win over Maria Sakkari, and so did American qualifier Jennifer Brady.

Before this week, the 34-year-old Lucic-Baroni hadn’t won a match at Melbourne Park since her debut at the Australian Open in 1998. The 19-year gap in between match wins at a Grand Slam tournament broke the record set by Kimiko Date-Krumm, who went 17 years between match wins at Wimbledon.

Lucic-Baroni reached the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1999 as a 17-year-old and captured the Australian Open doubles title a year before that with Martina Hingis.

She next plays Brady, ranked No. 116, who had never played in the main draw of a major before she qualified for this week.

The 21-year-old American had a 7-6 (4), 6-2 win over 14th-seeded Elena Vesnina on Show Court 2, and is making the most of the occasion.

By saving five match points before rallying to beat Heather Watson in the second round, Brady effectively doubled her number of career wins.

On the men’s side, No. 8 Dominic Thiem beat Benoit Paire 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 to set up a fourth-round match against No. 11 David Goffin, who ended Ivo Karlovic’s run 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.

The 37-year-old Karlovic’s win in the first round set an endurance record – the 84 games in the win over Horacio Zeballos, which ended 22-20 in the fifth, was an Open-era mark for the tournament.

Roger Federer into fourth round at Australian Open after beating Tomas Berdych

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 20:  Roger Federer of Swizterland celebrates his win in his third round match against Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic walks on on day five of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 20, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Roger Federer relaxed into the chair, his arms folded across his chest in a casual, confident way, and just savored a vintage Australian Open performance.

The 17-time Grand Slam champion, seeded a lowly-by-his-standards 17th after spending six months on the sidelines to let his left knee heal, only needed 90 minutes to beat Tomas Berdych 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 in the third round on Friday.

This was against a highly-credentialed pro, seeded No. 10, who beat Federer in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2010 on the way to the final. Berdych reached the quarterfinals or better in Australia the previous six years, and had beaten Federer in six of their previous 22 matches.

Federer said he felt like he struggled against the qualifiers in his first two rounds, and knew the degree of difficulty would rise sharply. Having beaten Berdych, he next faces No. 5 Kei Nishikori. And there’s a potential quarterfinal match against top-ranked Andy Murray.

“It’s just crazy how quick I got out of the blocks,” Federer said of his almost flawless match against Berdych. “What a difference it was in the feeling afterward. I did surprise myself.

“From the baseline, honestly, I felt worlds better than in the first couple of rounds.”

Federer hit some classic one-handed backhand winners, including one that earned a hearty applause from the great Rod Laver – sitting in the crowd at the stadium named in his honor – in the second set.

He had 40 winners and won 95 percent of points when he got his first serve into play. He didn’t face a break point.

During his on-court interview, Federer acknowledged Laver, the last man to complete the calendar year Grand Slam.

Laver waved back.

“It’s always nice when he shows up to watch,” the 35-year-old Federer said. “It’s always nice when he’s in the building.”

Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open finalist who beat Lukas Lacko 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, has lost four of his six matches against Federer, including the last three.

“Guess I’m ready. There’s no turning back,” Federer said. “He’s … maybe the best backhand in the business right now. Really got my work cut out for me.”

Five-time Australian Open runner-up Murray said he had no trouble with his sore right ankle as he advanced to the fourth round for the ninth straight year with a 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 win over No. 31 Sam Querrey.

Murray, who replaced Djokovic at No. 1 in November, said he was surprised at the six-time Australian Open champion’s second-round loss to Denis Istomin. But Murray didn’t think it changed anything for him.

“I wasn’t scheduled to play Novak today, so my job’s to concentrate on Sam and to go into that match with a clear head and a good game plan and try to play well,” said Murray, who next plays Mischa Zverev. “I did that.

“If you’re to get to the final, then it has an effect.”

Seven-time major winner Venus Williams routed Duan Yingying 6-1, 6-0 in 59 minutes to reach the fourth round in Australia for the 10th time.

“It’s good (but) it’s never enough,” she said, looking ahead to her fourth-round match against Mona Barthel. “I’ve tasted it before and it’s always a great feeling because it means, hey, I have an opportunity for the quarterfinals. That’s what I’m going to go for.”

There’s no Americans or Australians remaining in the men’s draw. No. 23-seeded Jack Sock followed Querrey out, losing 7-6 (4), 7-5, 6-7 (8), 6-3 to No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Daniel Evans beat Bernard Tomic 7-5, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3).

U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka had a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (7) win over Viktor Troicki to move into a fourth-round match against Andreas Seppi.

Women’s champion Angelique Kerber beat Kristyna Pliskova 6-0, 6-4 and will next play CoCo Vandeweghe, who had a 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 win over 2014 Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard. French Open champion Garbine Muguruza closed out Day 5 with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Anastasia Sevastova.

The day belonged to Federer, though, and he didn’t mind that everyone noticed. When reminded in his news conference of his range of exquisite shots, the 35-year-old Swiss star eased into his chair and nodded.

“Thank you. Keep going. Keep going – it’s good, it’s good,” he said, smiling. “What’s nice about tonight is it was unexpected for me, unexpected for a lot of people apparently as well, and it was against a fellow top player.”