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Nadal back in Paris, no title to defend, no Federer to face

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PARIS — Through the years, Rafael Nadal grew accustomed to a couple of givens at the French Open: He would arrive as the defending champion, and Roger Federer would be somewhere in the draw, often awaiting a showdown in the final.

This time around, neither is the case.

Federer withdrew a few days before Sunday’s start of the clay-court Grand Slam tournament, ending his record run of 65 consecutive major appearances.

“For the fans, for the tournament, for the world (of) tennis, in general, is … very negative news, no?” Nadal said.

Nadal won the title at Roland Garros every year from 2005-08 and from 2010-14 – a record nine in all, beating Federer in four of those finals – but returns to town trying to earn back the trophy after relinquishing it in 2015.

He is seeded fourth.

“It’s a tournament that I know I can play well,” said Nadal, who lost in the quarterfinals to Novak Djokovic a year ago. “If I am playing well, I know I can do good things.”

Nadal, who owns 14 major championships in all, could face No. 1 Djokovic in about two weeks in the semifinals – on what would be the Spaniard’s 30th birthday.

Asked about that milestone, Nadal waxed philosophical.

“You know, time never stops. Nobody stops the time,” he said. “That’s not a good thing, but at the same time, I am happy with my life. I enjoyed all these years on the tour, and I hope to keep enjoying the next couple of years.”

After dealing with health problems and a crisis of confidence last season, Nadal has been playing better on his favorite red clay of late.

He is 19-4 on the surface this season, including titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Not bad, but not up to his old standards. In his past two tournaments, Nadal lost in the Madrid semifinals to Andy Murray, and the Rome quarterfinals to Djokovic.

“A lot of tournaments in a row playing well,” said Nadal, who faces Sam Groth in the first round in Paris. “I need to just keep going.”

Other things to know about the French Open, which begins Sunday:

SERENA’S `DROUGHT’: Much was made of Serena Williams’ title in Rome last weekend being her first trophy in nine months. She does not consider that gap a big deal. “I guess when you win all the time, if you go a couple of tournaments and don’t win them, it’s like you’re in a drought,” Williams said. She is the defending champion and seeded No. 1 at Roland Garros, and another title would be her 22nd at a Grand Slam tournament, equaling Steffi Graf for the most in the Open era, which started in 1968.

SECURITY STEPPED UP: From patdowns at entrance gates to a 25 percent rise in the number of security agents, there is an obvious increase in protective measures at the tournament, about six months after terrorist attacks around the French capital. “I notice more security pretty much everywhere,” No. 2-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska said.

OLYMPIC PUSH: A Grand Slam tournament is a Grand Slam tournament, so there is plenty at stake as always over the next 15 days, but there is an added incentive for some players: the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The ATP and WTA rankings of June 6 – the day after the men’s final in Paris – will be the basis for Summer Games qualification.

DOPING TALK: Two recent events put the topic of performance-enhancing drugs on the table in tennis. Maria Sharapova’s positive test for meldonium and provisional suspension are keeping her out of the field at a tournament she won in 2012 and 2014. And Nadal filed a defamation lawsuit in Paris last month against France’s former minister for health and sport, Roselyne Bachelot, after she said on a television show the player’s seven-month injury absence in 2012 probably was due to a positive drug test.

CHEATING: A report about whether tennis was doing enough to investigate possible corruption stirred things up at the start of the Australian Open in January. While the chatter has mostly subsided, the French Open revoked the wild-card entry granted to a French player, Constant Lestienne, because the Tennis Integrity Unit said he violated a rule.

 

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.”