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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.

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.