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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.

New look: Murray, Kerber start Australian Open as top seeds

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) It’s new and exciting for Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber, entering a Grand Slam tournament with the No. 1 in front of their names.

Both reached the top of the rankings for the first time near the end of 2016, ending long reigns by Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.

And so they’ll open their Australian Open campaigns on Rod Laver Arena on day one – both against Ukrainians.

Murray, a five-time runner-up, opens his pursuit of a first Australian title against Illya Marchenko in the last day match on the main show court. Kerber opens the night session against Lesia Tsurenko. She’ll be followed on court by Roger Federer, who is returning from six months on the sidelines.

The `one-round-at-a-time’ cliche is well worn in tennis. For Kerber, though, it’s pertinent. Seeded seventh last year, the left-handed German had to save a match point in the first round against Misaki Doi. Spurred on by that, she went on to beat Serena Williams in the final and claim her first Grand Slam title. She added a second major at the U.S. Open and ascended to the No 1 ranking.

“I think this point where I was match point down, that was the important point for my career,” Kerber said Sunday, speaking of her first-round escape against Doi. “You never know (if) I lost the match, what would have happened.”

It gave her the freedom to play without pressure, and that made all the difference.

“When I’m looking back, I was feeling that I got a second chance to stay in the tournament,” she said. “I was playing since then without expectation … just enjoying everything.”

Kerber can hang on to the top ranking by reaching to the final here, but she’s already feeling there’s more to defend than her title.

“It’s a new challenge for me, for sure,” she said. But, “We are starting from zero here. I have to be ready from the first round again.

“I will try to not put too much expectation and pressure on myself. I mean, I will try to do it like last year – that was the way I had my success.”

Record-chasing, six-time champions Djokovic and Williams, seeded No. 2 and anchoring the bottom half of the men’s and women’s draws, won’t be in action until day two. Djokovic is aiming to be the first man to win seven Australian titles. Serena Williams is chasing an Open-era record 23rd major title.

Newly-engaged Williams hasn’t wanted to talk about the record, being a little bit superstitious. Williams is concentrating on her first-round match against Belinda Bencic, who was seeded 12th here last year and who beat her in Toronto in 2015.

While Serena has to wait, the Williams family will be represented on Rod Laver Arena on Monday by her older sister, Venus. The 13th-seeded Venus Williams will play against Kateryna Kozlova following fourth-seeded Simona Halep’s opener against Shelby Rogers.

French Open champion Garbine Muguruza starts play on Margaret Court Arena against Marina Erakovic, and U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka opens the night session on the second show court.

Fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori gets things underway against Andrey Kuznetsov on Hisense Arena, where Nick Kyrgios will make his return to the tour against Gastao Elias.

The 21-year-old Kyrgios finished 2016 under a ban in a season overshadowed by clashes with officials and fans and by the tanking at the Shanghai Masters which led to an eight-week suspension.

The ban was reduced to three weeks when Kyrgios agreed to consult a sports psychologist, allowing to warmup for the Australian Open at the Hopman Cup.

That’s where Federer made his return from six months out to give his injured left knee time to heal. The 17-time major winner didn’t play after Wimbledon and his ranking slid to No. 17 by this week. That resulted in him getting a tougher draw than usual at the tournament he has won four times, and where he has reached the semifinals in 12 of the last 13 years. If results go with rankings, he’ll play two qualifiers before a potential third-round match against No. 10 Tomas Berdych. Nishikori and Murray are also in his quarter.

Federer will open against another 35-year-old veteran, former No. 8-ranked Jurgen Melzer.

“That’s the part of the draw I care most about because of having not been playing,” Federer said.

Wild-card entry Destanee Aiava, a 16-year-old Melbourne high school student, is set to become the first player born in this millennium to play a main draw match at a Grand Slam when she meets German qualifier Mona Barthel on Show Court 2.

Andy Murray confident he can break Aussie drought

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 14:  Andy Murray of Scotland serves during a practice session ahead of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Andy Murray has become a father, gained the No. 1 ranking and received a knighthood since he left Melbourne Park 50 weeks ago after losing a fifth Australian Open final.

Stress weighed him down at the season-opening Grand Slam in 2016, to the point where he thought about quitting the tournament to head back to Britain to be with his heavily pregnant wife. But even that would have presented problems, considering his father-in-law was in a Melbourne hospital after collapsing with an illness while watching a match at the Australian Open.

Clearly, he’s in a better place this year as he seeks to end his Australian drought.

“I obviously feel pretty confident after the way that last season finished,” he said. “I do love it here. I love the conditions. I have played really well here over the years, and just haven’t managed to get over the final hurdle.

“But, yeah, I think I’m in a decent position, for sure, to do it. I think I have a chance to win here. I’m playing well. Practice has been good. I feel healthy. I’ll give it a good shot.”

Rumors circulated last year that Murray would go home before facing Djokovic, his Melbourne nemesis, in the final. As it was, he was on the first flight to Heathrow after losing in straight sets – his fourth Australian Open final defeat to Djokovic and fifth overall dating back to 2010. His wife, Kim Sears, gave birth to their first child, Sophia Olivia, the following week.

He confirmed Saturday, two days before he opens the 2017 tournament against Illya Marchenko of Ukraine, that he really had thought about leaving early.

“It was a tough tournament, obviously the situation with Kim and the baby coming was tough,” he said. “Then with what happened with Nigel during the event made it really kind of awkward because there was times … it was like `I want to home for the birth,’ but then I’m not just going to leave while my father-in-law is also in hospital.

“It was tough, and certainly not a position I would want to put myself in again, or my wife, or any of my family really.”

Murray had a stunning end to 2016 after reuniting with Ivan Lendl as coach in June, winning his second Wimbledon title, defending his Olympic gold medal, and adding titles in Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna and Paris to end Djokovic’s 122-week stint at No. 1.

He then clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking by winning the ATP Finals, beating the players seeded second, third, fourth and fifth.

He set a record for most time between gaining the No. 2 and No. 1 rankings – seven years, and 82 days. But he has set a lot of timely records for British tennis in the last three seasons and, in Queen Elizabeth II’s New Year’s honors list, he received a knighthood from the British monarch for reaching the pinnacle of the sport.

Roger Federer was asked if he could remember what it was like back in 2004 when he first became No. 1, and how he’d explain it to Murray.

“It definitely feels different because everybody comes up to you and says, `You’re the best,'” said Federer, who spent a record 302 weeks at No. 1. “You start walking around a bit differently. Just feel more confident overall in your shots.”

Murray said he hasn’t really felt a difference yet, but it has only been eight weeks. Considering how hard it was to achieve the top spot, he’s hoping it doesn’t take twice the energy to hang on to it.

“It is a mindset thing, because I think it could be quite easy that once you get to No. 1 that you think, `Well, actually, I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing,'” he said. “The reality is that things obviously keep moving on, the game will get better, I’ll obviously get older, the young guys will continue to improve, and also Novak and Roger and Stan (Wawrinka) and Rafa (Nadal) and all the guys at the top are still going to be wanting to get there.

“I need to continue to improve. I for sure need to keep working hard.”

One thing he doesn’t really want to change is how people refer to him now that formally he’s recognized as Sir Andy Murray, particularly the broadcasters.

“I’m more than happy just being Andy. That’s enough for me,” he said. “Yeah, if they call me Andy, I’d be happy with that.”