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Wawrinka can chuckle after avoiding historic loss

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PARIS (AP) So, Stan Wawrinka was asked, were you aware that in the long history of the French Open, no defending champion ever had lost in the first round?

“No,” Wawrinka replied quickly, his arms crossed, the hint of a smirk on his scruffy face. After waiting a comedic beat, he added with a chuckle: “And it’s still not the case, so it’s good.”

Sure, by then, it was easy for the 2015 champion at Roland Garros to kid around, because he barely avoided making the sort of history no athlete would embrace. Eventually warming up on a gray, chilly afternoon, and twice coming back from a set down, Wawrinka edged 59th-ranked Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic 4-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 on Monday to sneak into the second round.

“I know that physically I’m stronger than he is, and I knew that he was going to decline a little bit,” said the No. 3-seeded Wawrinka said. “That’s exactly what happened.”

Something similar transpired several hours later, when No. 2 Andy Murray faced an even greater deficit, dropping the first two sets against 128th-ranked qualifier Radek Stepanek, who at 37 is the oldest man in the field. Their match didn’t finish, though, suspended until Tuesday because of darkness.

After the net-charging Stepanek raced to a 6-3, 6-3 lead, his legs began to falter, and Murray started to work his way back into the match.

The two-time major champion took the third set 6-0, and was up a break at 4-2 in the fourth when they stopped. As dusk began to arrive – there are no artificial lights at Roland Garros – Murray accused his opponent of gamesmanship, complaining to the chair umpire that Stepanek was trying to delay the proceedings.

“How many things can he do to slow the play down?” Murray said after Stepanek headed to the locker room following the third set. He added: “Keep an eye on how long this toilet break is.”

After returning to the court, Stepanek changed shirts, drawing a warning for wasting time.

If he was hoping to force the match to another day, it worked. The way he and Rosol challenged two of the top three seeded men was emblematic of the way Day 2 went.

There were no bracket-busting stunners, but the surprises included 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic’s 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 loss to 166th-ranked qualifier Marco Trungelliti of Argentina. Four seeded women exited, most notably No. 7 Roberta Vinci, the Italian who ended Serena Williams’ Grand Slam bid at last year’s U.S. Open.

While Stepanek can rest and regroup, Rosol had no such opportunity to gather himself as he unraveled.

The key moment came with Wawrinka trailing 15-40 while serving at 2-all in the fourth set. Wawrinka saved both of those break points – Rosol helped matters by missing two backhands – and never faced another the rest of the way.

“He (started) to be a little bit tight,” Wawrinka noted.

The temperature was in the 50s (about 15 degrees Celsius) and rain delayed the start for roughly 2 1/2 hours, conditions favoring Rosol. Early on, nothing went Wawrinka’s way. Even his terrific backhand was problematic, including one shank that ended the third set. In all, Wawrinka made 46 unforced errors, 17 on the backhand side.

This should have been easier for him.

Wawrinka is a two-time Grand Slam title winner; Rosol never has made it past the third round in 20 major tournaments and is 110-137 in tour-level matches. His most noteworthy accomplishment was defeating Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2012, displaying the same go-for-broke, flat groundstrokes and intimidating serve he used to such great effect against Wawrinka.

Wawrinka and Rosol played four times previously, with Wawrinka winning each one, most recently Friday at Geneva.

“I wanted … payback,” Rosol said.

Monday’s match was at Court Philippe Chatrier, where Wawrinka’s nearly perfect performance beat Novak Djokovic in the 2015 final. That day, Wawrinka produced what he called “certainly one of the best matches of my career – if not the best.”

His play was a far cry from that against Rosol in the first and third sets, when Wawrinka produced more than half of his unforced errors. But he eventually turned things in his favor.

Asked what emotions he felt returning to the site for the first time since holding the trophy, Wawrinka said he didn’t let those “great” feelings linger.

“I came back to play a match,” he said, “not to enjoy and think about what I did last year.”

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

Nadal beats Dimitrov, one win from record 31st Masters title

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MONACO (AP) Rafael Nadal remains on course for a record 31st Masters title after beating Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 6-1 in the Monte Carlo Masters semifinals on Saturday.

The top-ranked Spaniard never looked in trouble as he beat the fourth-seeded Bulgarian for the 11th time in 12 career meetings.

If Nadal wins Sunday’s final, he will earn a 76th career title and also keep his No. 1 ranking. Should he lose, Roger Federer will reclaim the top spot.

Nadal faces either third-seeded Alexander Zverev of Germany or Kei Nishikori of Japan, who play later Saturday.

In the opening game, Dimitrov came out firing. He pressured Nadal with two superb lobs, forcing a backhand smash wide from the Spaniard for deuce. But Nadal held a tight first game lasting eight minutes, and then broke Dimitrov for 2-0.

Dimitrov found his range, broke Nadal back and held for 3-3. The next two games were even, with Dimitrov matching Nadal in the rallies.

The 16-time Grand Slam champion held for 5-4 and then Dimitrov cracked, serving consecutive double faults and hitting a wild forehand long to trail 15-40. He saved one set point but Nadal was in ruthless mode and took the next chance.

It appeared that Nadal was gaining his usual momentum on clay – and two consecutive love breaks and three easy holds made it 5-0 to the Spaniard in the second set.

Dimitrov explained his collapse this way.

“I think I played smart against him. I kind of know his pattern a little bit better,” Dimitrov said. “But it was my fault when I got broken. Simple as that. Two double-faults, it’s just definitely not acceptable, especially when you play against him on that surface.”

Dimitrov finally held, drawing polite applause, but Nadal served out the match with ease. He clinched victory on his first match point when Dimitrov patted the ball wide following a brief exchange.

“You see me with a smile. I’m a positive person,” Dimitrov said. “Deep down, I’m hurt. I hate losing. Simple as that.”

Nadal shares the Masters record with Novak Djokovic, whose 30 wins include two here.

Nadal’s victory at Monte Carlo last year made him the first men’s tennis player in the Open era to win the same title 10 times. He then won a 10th title at Barcelona and the French Open.

 

Fed Cup: Stephens to open for US against France in semis

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AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France (AP) U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens will open play for the U.S. against Pauline Parmentier of France in the Fed Cup semifinals.

France No. 1 Kristina Mladenovic and CoCo Vandeweghe will follow on Saturday in the second singles at the new 6,700-capacity Arena Pays d’Aix. France has opted for an indoor clay court.

Mladenovic and Amandine Hesse are set to face Madison Keys and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the doubles on Sunday following the reverse singles.

France and the United States meet for a 14th time, with the Americans holding an 11-2 winning record. The French won their most recent meeting, in 2014.

Both teams are missing their highest-ranked player: No. 8 Venus Williams for the U.S., and No. 7 Caroline Garcia for France.

Germany is facing the Czech Republic in the other semifinal in Stuttgart.