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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

Serena Williams returning to competition for US Fed Cup team

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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) The U.S. Tennis Association says Serena Williams will return to competition for the first time in more than a year at the country’s Fed Cup matches against the Netherlands next month.

Williams has not played an official match since winning the Australian Open in January 2017 for her 23rd Grand Slam singles title. She was pregnant during that tournament and gave birth to a daughter on Sept. 1.

Joining Williams on U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi’s roster announced Tuesday is older sister Venus, a seven-time major champion. The siblings have not played on the Fed Cup team together in three years.

Also on the team: CoCo Vandeweghe, a semifinalist at the Australian Open and U.S. Open last year. A fourth member of the U.S. squad will be announced next week.

The U.S. won last year’s Fed Cup.

The matches against the Netherlands will be held on an indoor hard court in Ashville, North Carolina, on Feb. 10-11.

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

Injured Nadal out of Australian Open; Cilic into semifinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) An injured and visibly struggling Rafael Nadal retired while trailing in the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal match against Marin Cilic.

Top-ranked Nadal fended off five break points in the last game before Cilic broke his serve, then the 16-time major winner went to shake hands with the umpire and his opponent, and angrily hurled his headband into his equipment bag.

No. 6-seeded Cilic advanced to his first semifinal in Australia since 2010 with a score of 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 2-0, retired.

Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open champion, will next play No. 49-ranked Kyle Edmund, who beat No. 3-ranked Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to reach a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time.

Nadal limped into a news conference about a half-hour later, still wincing when he stepped up onto a platform. He said he felt muscle pain in his upper right leg in the third set but played through it. In the fourth set, chasing a drop shot, he felt the pain get worse “but didn’t realize how bad.”

“Tough moments -not (for) the first time here,” he said. “I’m a positive person, but today is an opportunity lost to be in a semifinal for a Grand Slam and fight for an important title for me.

“It’s really tough to accept.”

Nadal said he’d have medical scans Wednesday to determine the exact location and extent of the injury, which he could only describe as being high on his right leg but not in the hip.

“Unbelievable performance from both of us and really unfortunate for Rafa,” Cilic said. “He’s such an unbelievable competitor. He always gives his best … it’s very unfortunate for him to finish this way.”

It was only the second time Nadal had retired during a Grand Slam match – the last time was also an Australian Open quarterfinal, in 2010 against Andy Murray.

On Tuesday night, he needed a medical timeout after going down 4-1 in the fourth set for treatment on his leg.

Nadal returned but was clearly bothered by the injury, limping and taking as much time as possible as he tried to stretch between points.

He called the trainer again after losing the fourth set, and lasted only two further games.

Cilic had only previously beaten Nadal once in their six previous matches – in their first match at Beijing in 2009.

Nadal had a delayed start to the season because of an injured right knee, but appeared to be in good form through the first four rounds. He now hasn’t won back-to-back Australian Open quarterfinals since 2008 and ’09, the year he won his only Australian title.

“I worked hard to be here,” said Nadal, who skipped tournaments in Abu Dhabi and Brisbane, Australia, while his knee recovered at the start of the season. “We did all the things that we believed were the right things to do.”

His absence also means there’s only one of last year’s singles finalists remaining in the tournament. Roger Federer, who beat Nadal in five sets last year, is playing Tomas Berdych in a quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Serena Williams didn’t defend her title, deciding she hadn’t had enough time to prepare following the birth of her first child last September. Her older sister, Venus Williams, was beaten in the first round.

On top of that, six-time champion Novak Djokovic was upset in the fourth round.

There’ll be a British man in the Australian Open semifinals for the seventh time in nine years, but it won’t be five-time finalist Murray – who skipped the season-opening tournament to have surgery on his hip.

Edmund had never played in a major quarterfinal, had never won five consecutive matches at tour level, had lost both of his previous matches against Dimitrov and had never beaten a top five player.

He checked all those boxes on Rod Laver Arena.

“I am loving it right now, just the way I’m playing,” Edmund said. “My first Grand Slam semifinal. First time I played on one of the biggest courts in the world. To beat a quality of player like Grigor. They’re great feelings. So, yeah, I just try to enjoy it as much as possible.”

After breaking Dimitrov’s serve in the ninth game of the fourth set, Edmund set up match point with an ace. Then he had to wait before a video challenge confirmed that Dimitrov’s last shot – a floating backhand – was out.

“I just held my nerve in that last game and prayed that last ball would be out,” Edmund said. It was out. And so was Dimitrov, who lost a five-set semifinal here last year to Nadal.

“Everything went his way today,” Dimitrov said. “It’s hard to hide a disappointment. It hurts, and so it should.”

Edmund, who had a first-round upset over U.S. Open finalist Kevin Anderson, is now the center of attention for the tennis-loving British public.

“I know what it feels like to be Andy Murray the last eight years,” he said. “It’s probably the first time I’ve done well on my own, so there’s more attention there. Of course you take it in stride.”

Elise Mertens is facing a similar experience.

Mertens upset fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-0 to extend her winning streak to 10 matches, becoming the first Belgian since Kim Clijsters in 2012 to reach the semifinals here.

Mertens, who trains at Clijsters’ academy, said: “Kim, thanks for watching. I’m trying to be in your footsteps this week.”

In the semis, she’ll play either second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki or Carla Suarez Navarro.