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Even before easy win, good day for Serena in Paris

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PARIS (AP) Even before Serena Williams quickly and easily seized control of her first-round match Tuesday, things were shaping up rather well for her at the French Open.

Williams’ bid for her 22nd Grand Slam title, which would equal Steffi Graf’s Open-era record, began with a nothing-to-see-here 6-2, 6-0 victory over 77th-ranked Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia in all of 42 minutes.

Not that she wished it had been more of a workout.

“It was a little short for me, but I think in my career, if I don’t have it by now, I need to look into something different. So I’m OK – I’m OK with that,” said the top-seeded Williams, who took the last 10 games after a so-so start.

What happened earlier on Day 3 was more surprising – and perhaps just as significant for the defending champion: Two of the top five seeded women exited the clay-court tournament.

No. 3 Angelique Kerber, who upset Williams in the Australian Open final in January, lost to 58th-ranked Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. And No. 5 Victoria Azarenka, one of the only other two women who defeated Williams this season, bowed out in the first round, too, stopping because of an injured right knee while trailing 4-0 in the third set against 118th-ranked Karen Knapp of Italy.

Williams could have faced Azarenka in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and Kerber in the semifinals.

But Azarenka’s knee buckled in the sixth game of the second set, and she started grimacing and limping. After the first point of the next game, she went to the sideline and requested medical attention, which Knapp didn’t think was fair.

“I don’t want to say anything bad about her,” Knapp said, “but we all know how she is.”

Azarenka managed to pull out the second set, but she eventually decided not to continue.

“I started to feel a sharp pain in my knee. I’ve had an injury there before, a while ago, but it hasn’t been a problem until today,” Azarenka said, explaining: “It got worse as the match went on.”

Kerber, a lefty, got treatment for her left shoulder, which has been bothering her lately.

“That was, for sure, not my best tennis,” she said.

In the six major tournaments before this one, Williams went 39-2, with the only losses coming against Kerber and No. 7 Roberta Vinci, who ended the American’s try for a calendar-year Grand Slam at the 2015 U.S. Open but is done in Paris after losing Monday.

The rain that played havoc with the schedule over the first two days was nowhere to be found Tuesday, although the chill remained, and Williams wore leggings under her skirt and a zipped-up, long-sleeved top to shield her from temperatures that hovered around 60 degrees (15 Celsius).

“I don’t like playing in cold weather,” said Williams, who compiled 25 winners and five unforced errors, “but everything felt pretty good.”

Her older sister, No. 9 Venus, also won in straight sets, avoiding a second consecutive first-round Grand Slam loss – and a second consecutive first-round French Open loss. She spent a lot more time on court, needing nearly two hours to get past 82nd-ranked Anett Kontaveit 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4).

The top-seeded man, Novak Djokovic, was not tested at all, defeating 95th-ranked Yen-hsun Lu 6-4, 6-1, 6-1. And Rafael Nadal was so at ease in a 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 victory over 100th-ranked Sam Groth that the nine-time French Open champion allowed himself a smile after a dazzling, back-to-the-net, through-the-legs passing shot winner.

No. 2 Andy Murray was never that at peace during his struggle of a match, which was suspended because of darkness Monday night in the fourth set.

Murray lost the opening two sets against 37-year-old Radek Stepanek, a qualifier from the Czech Republic who was the oldest man in the field, then twice was two points from losing while serving down 5-4 in the fifth on Tuesday.

“Today was pretty, you know, stressful,” said Murray, who engaged in his usual mix of gesticulating and grousing.

Stepanek, meanwhile, was having the time of his life, mixing confounding drop shots with net rushes, and motioning to the crowd for more support.

In the end, though, Murray eked out a 3-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5 win. He’ll be scheduled to play for a third consecutive day on Wednesday.

“Obviously being so close, it’s always tough to absorb,” Stepanek said, “but to play on such a stage, in front of such a crowd, it’s been a pleasure.”

 

French Open 2017: 30 is the new 25 in men’s tennis right now

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PARIS — The very top of men’s tennis has never been this old.

For the first time in the history of the ATP computer rankings, which date to the early 1970s, the men sitting at Nos. 1-5 are all 30 or older, the latest sign that the current crop of stars has enviable staying power.

It’s also the latest reason to wonder when a new face will emerge among the elite, because there eventually will come a point – yes, there really will – when the group that was once known as the Big 3, then came to be called the Big 4, and now is considered by some to be a Big 5, is no longer running the sport.

With the French Open starting Sunday, No. 1 Andy Murray, No. 2 Novak Djokovic, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka and No. 4 Rafael Nadal (No. 5 Roger Federer is skipping Paris) all have designs on another major trophy. But could someone such as Alexander Zverev, who just turned 20 last month, or the supremely talented – and supremely enigmatic – Nick Kyrgios, 22, or Dominic Thiem, 23, make a breakthrough for the up-and-coming kids?

“We’re probably coming to the end of one of the greatest eras of tennis that, certainly, I’ve ever seen,” ATP Executive Chairman and President Chris Kermode said, “and what we need to do as a sport is look to the next generation of players.”

Federer is 35, Wawrinka is 32, Nadal turns 31 on June 3, and Djokovic and Murray turned 30 this month. That quintet has won 46 of the last 48 Grand Slam titles, a dozen-year stretch of dominance.

Zverev’s victory over Djokovic in the Italian Open final last weekend might have symbolized coming change. Zverev was the first man born in the 1990s to win a Masters 1000 title, the youngest champ since Djokovic about a decade ago.

That title also pushed Zverev into the top 10, making him the youngest member since Juan Martin del Potro in 2008.

“It’s nice … for the tour, as well, to have a few younger guys, few younger girls, as well, to be able to play at the top,” said Zverev, who is German. “As I said many times, unfortunately for tennis and unfortunately for the spectators, the top four cannot play forever. So it’s good that younger players are starting to get through.”

So then the question becomes: Why has it taken so long?

Why does someone such as former player and coach Brad Gilbert, now an ESPN commentator, say, “Today’s 30 is like 25 used to be,” as he did this week? Why have these 30-somethings had such staying power? And why is it taking so long for newcomers to make a mark?

There is a similar situation in women’s tennis, where Serena Williams has kept winning Grand Slam titles into her 30s and is the oldest No. 1 in WTA history. Current No. 1 Angelique Kerber was the oldest woman to make her debut at that spot.

“Tennis has changed in the last 15 years … since they slowed down surfaces and there is not much difference in speeds of the surfaces,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach. “You rarely have many easy shots now. You have to work the points much more, and one of the consequences is you need to be physically much better and able to play long rallies.”

He points out that when Wimbledon’s grass courts, for example, used to play much faster than they do now, a player could succeed there hitting aces by the dozen and going for one winner after another, because “you don’t need the same maturity and understanding of tactics” that are required today.

Gilbert points to Andre Agassi – a man he used to coach, and who is assisting Djokovic during this French Open – as an inspiration to the current old-timers still in charge.

“It used to be, you turned 30, you were completely on the downside of your career. A lot of these guys can remember Andre making a deep run at 2005 at 35 years old. I think that was the turning point in belief, that guys could play a lot longer,” Gilbert said. “You’re seeing Tom Brady be the best quarterback in all of football, maybe ever, and he’s approaching 40, which is dinosaur for a quarterback, but not anymore. Athletes are pushing the envelope all year round. There’s no offseason. Offseason is for more training, diet, technology.”

Nadal leads Djokovic, Murray, Thiem on French Open odds

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The overarching presence of Rafael Nadal, who has won a record nine times at Roland Garros, has inflated prices on the other top men at the French Open.

Nadal is listed as a better than even money -125 favorite on the French Open men’s champion board at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The Spaniard has won 17 of 18 matches on clay this year and will not have to worry about longtime nemesis Roger Federer, who’s saving himself for the grass and hard courts. The event begins in Paris on Sunday.

While Nadal is undoubtedly the most consistent clay-court player in the world, many threats loom. Novak Djokovic (+300) might be ready to come out of his lull now that he has swapped out his support staff, bringing on Andre Agassi as a personal coach. Nadal and Djokovic are on the same side of the draw, so either would benefit if the other falls prey to an upset.

Dominic Thiem (+900) could also be undervalued, given that he defeated Nadal in the Italian Open, one of the tune-ups for the French.

Top seed Andy Murray (+900) has not won an event on clay this season and his place on the tennis betting lines might reflect the notion that some bettors will always go for a big name with a track record of winning Grand Slams. In terms of someone who is coming into the tournament playing well, Stan Wawrinka (+1000) has had an impressive run at the Geneva Open after having so-so output for most of the clay-court season. Wawrinka is also a recent champion, having won in 2015.

It seems like it is just a matter of when 20-year-old Alexander Zverev (+1400) will win his first Grand Slam singles title. Zverev turned heads when he extended Nadal to five sets in a third-round defeat at the Australian Open in January, and he defeated Djokovic in the Italian Open final to become the youngest player in 10 years to win an ATP Masters event.

As far as the women’s champion board goes, Simona Halep (+450) has top odds but is battling an ankle injury. World No. 1 Angelique Kerber (+1600) has also been inconsistent throughout the season. Young Ukrainian Elina Svitolina (+700) is an intriguing possibility by virtue of her results (four singles titles already in 2017) and her strong return game, since the soft clay at Roland Garros dictates having longer rallies.

Garbine Muguruza (+900) is the defending champion, but it’s a little glaring that she has not reached a Grand Slam semifinal in three tries since that 2016 breakthrough.