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US Open top seeds Williams, Djokovic coming off injuries

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NEW YORK (AP) Serena Williams is “starting to feel a little better.” Novak Djokovic is “getting there.”

The U.S. Open’s top seeds in both singles brackets are coming off injuries, and neither has played since an early loss at the Olympics. Friday was the first time either had discussed the health problems that stymied them in Rio de Janeiro and forced them to withdraw from the hard-court warmup at Cincinnati.

For Williams, it’s a sore right shoulder that she revealed started bothering her almost immediately after her Wimbledon victory. She said she practiced for just two days before the Olympics and has spent little time on court since as she undergoes physical therapy.

For Djokovic, it’s a sore left wrist that he revealed he hurt in Rio a few days before his first-round Olympic loss to Juan Martin del Potro, a player who knows plenty about how that injury hinders a righty’s two-handed backhand.

“I’m just hoping that Monday when the tournament starts I’ll be able to get as close to the maximum of executing my backhand shot as possible,” said Djokovic, who sounded a bit more optimistic than Williams on Friday.

Williams acknowledged she’d prefer to have played more coming into the Open – she’s had just three singles matches since Wimbledon – and needs to practice more.

“I’m just now starting to feel a little better,” she said. “Hopefully just every day I will keep going higher.”

It wasn’t a physical problem that burdened Djokovic during his third-round Wimbledon loss to 41st-ranked Sam Querrey, he acknowledged. Asked that day if he was 100 percent healthy, the 12-time major champ replied: “Not really. But it’s not the place and time to talk about it.”

On Friday, Djokovic conceded “it was some other things that I was going through privately.” He wouldn’t elaborate other than to say that now “everything is fine.”

Speaking of left wrist injuries, Rafael Nadal said his keeps getting better but still isn’t 100 percent. Because the 14-time Grand Slam champ is a lefty, his issue is the forehand.

When he first came back, he recalled, “you try to find movements to avoid the pain.” Now he can start to hit his normal forehand again, but it “still needs time to feel that I am more confident in my wrist.”

Both Djokovic and Williams face a former Grand Slam semifinalist in the first round. Williams opens her bid for a record-breaking 23rd major title against Ekaterina Makarova, who’s coming off an Olympic doubles gold medal.

The Russian made two straight major semis – at the 2014 U.S. Open, losing to Williams 6-1, 6-3, and the 2015 Australian Open. With her ranking slipping to 36th, she just missed a seed at Flushing Meadows.

Doing an interview shortly after the draw was set, Djokovic joked he wasn’t “mentally ready” to see his bracket quite yet and wanted to wait until “I’m alone.” What he’ll see is a meeting with Jerzy Janowicz, a 2013 Wimbledon semifinalist who’s been ranked as high as 14th. After struggling in recent years and missing much of this season because of injuries, Janowicz is No. 228 in the world and used a protected ranking to get into the U.S. Open.

Nadal is a potential semifinal opponent for Djokovic, the defending champ, while Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka are in the other half of the bracket.

Williams could face fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska in the semis, which is also when she could potentially meet sister Venus. Australian Open champ Angelique Kerber and French Open winner Garbine Muguruza are on the other side of the draw.

Earlier in the tournament, Williams could run into opponents who have eliminated her at past majors. In the third round, she could meet Ana Ivanovic, who beat her at the 2014 Australian Open. And in the fourth round, she could face Sam Stosur, who stunned her in the 2011 U.S. Open final.

Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champ, is ranked just 142nd after three left wrist surgeries. Last week, Steve Johnson, the highest-ranked U.S. men’s player, questioned whether the U.S. Tennis Association should award del Potro the wild card he’d need to get in because the Argentine could possibly defeat an American in the first round. That scenario won’t occur – del Petro meets countryman Diego Schwartzman in his opener. But the 19th-seeded Johnson could face the Olympic silver medalist in the second round.

Between Wimbledon and the Rio Games, del Potro defeated three of the U.S. Open’s top four seeds.

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.