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Year after Slam bid at US Open, Williams eyes No. 23, No. 1

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Despite everything that Serena Williams has won and done, her sense of self can still fluctuate based on the outcome of a particular match.

Doesn’t always seem to matter that she owns a record-tying 22 major singles titles heading into the U.S. Open, which begins Monday with a retractable roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time.

Not necessarily a big deal to her that she’s spent the past 3+ years entrenched at No. 1 and is the oldest woman ever to top the WTA rankings.

And there are times when the 34-year-old American basically forgets that she transcends her sport and has become a cultural icon away from the tennis court.

Williams is devastated when she is dealt a setback, such as last year’s “Did that really happen?!” loss to Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals, ending an attention-grabbing, pressure-piling bid for the first calendar-year Grand Slam by anyone in more than a quarter-century. Williams acknowledges she measures herself constantly.

“Unfortunately, I definitely do, which I don’t think is normal. I definitely feel like when I lose, I don’t feel as good about myself,” she said.

“But then I have to, like, remind myself that: `You are Serena Williams!’ You know? Like, `Are you kidding me?”‘ Williams continued, laughing and leaning forward. “And it’s those moments that I have to just, like, come off and be like, `Serena, do you know what you’ve done? Who you are? What you continue to do, not only in tennis, (but also) off the court? Like, you’re awesome.’ That really just shows the human side of me. I’m not a robot.”

She is at the stage of her career where history is in the offing nearly every time a racket is in her right hand. So while the stakes are different from what they were at Flushing Meadows in 2015, Williams does have something significant to play for yet again.

After equaling Steffi Graf for the most Grand Slam titles in the professional era (which dates to 1968) by winning Wimbledon last month, Williams now can break that tie by earning No. 23 in New York. Only Margaret Court owns more major singles trophies, with 24, but more than half of that total came against amateur competition.

Not that Williams was immediately ready to think about topping Graf after pulling even with her at the All England Club.

“One thing I learned about last year is to enjoy the moment,” Williams said. “I’m definitely going to enjoy this.”

Good thing, too, because not everything has gone smoothly since that most recent triumph. Slowed by a bothersome right shoulder, Williams lost in the third round of singles and first round of doubles at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics – she was a 2012 gold medalist in both events – and then pulled out of a hard-court tuneup event in Ohio.

Williams is assured of remaining at No. 1 until the end of the U.S. Open, which will bring her current streak to 186 weeks in a row, tying another mark held by Graf. Depending on what happens in the tournament, Williams could be overtaken in the rankings by No. 2 Angelique Kerber (who beat Williams in the Australian Open final in January), No. 3 Garbine Muguruza (who beat Williams in the French Open final in June) or No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska.

“It’s definitely intriguing,” Roger Federer said about tracking the women vying for No. 1. “It’s nice to see this race.”

Federer, who won five of his men’s record 17 Grand Slam titles in New York, will be sitting out the U.S. Open for the first time since 1999 as he takes the rest of the season off to let his left knee heal. A year ago, Federer lost in the final at Flushing Meadows to Novak Djokovic. In Federer’s mind, the top-ranked Djokovic is the favorite this time, even though No. 2 Andy Murray’s summer has been “phenomenal.”

One reason: Federer thinks the installation of the new $150 million roof at the main arena will limit the wind even when it’s open, which will help Djokovic.

Not too long ago, Djokovic appeared to be close to unbeatable no matter the surface or conditions, and a buzz was building about whether he could chase a true Grand Slam. But he exited Wimbledon in the third round, then the Olympics in the first round, while Murray won both of those titles.

“Novak, obviously, the last two years, really, has played amazing tennis. His consistency – what I’ve done for, like, the last four months, he’s been doing for, like, the whole year,” Murray said. “So I need to try and keep that going, and the U.S. Open is always the next big goal.”

 

Nadal doesn’t see himself skipping tournaments like Federer

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MONACO (AP) For now, Rafael Nadal doesn’t see himself skipping any major tournaments the way Roger Federer has been sitting out the French Open.

The veterans are back at the top of world tennis, with Nadal needing to win the Monte Carlo Masters this week to avoid losing his top ranking once again to Federer in their seemingly eternal battle for tennis supremacy.

For the second consecutive season, the 36-year-old Federer is skipping the entire clay-court season in order to be at his best on grass.

After coming back from injury to win the Australian Open last year, Federer skipped the clay-court season, won Wimbledon, and retained his Melbourne crown to extend his record tally to 20 majors.

The Swiss star is keeping his aging body fresher by playing a bit less – avoiding Nadal on clay at Roland Garros or elsewhere – and it is working for him.

But Nadal still thinks he can play a full schedule.

“There (are) tournaments that I can’t imagine missing on purpose, because (they are) tournaments that I love to play,” Nadal said on Wednesday. “I don’t see myself missing Monte Carlo on purpose. I don’t see myself missing Wimbledon on purpose, or the U.S. Open, or Australian, or Rome. These kind of events, I don’t see missing (them).”

The 31-year-old Spaniard recently returned from a right hip injury which forced him to retire during the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal against Marin Cilic.

With his 32nd birthday coming up on June 3 – during the French Open – the 16-time Grand Slam champion accepts he may think differently when he gets closer to Federer’s age.

“Of course, when you get older, you need to adjust a little bit more the efforts and the calendar. But for me (it) is difficult to say I don’t play, for example, grass, or I don’t play hard (courts),” Nadal said. “(It) is not in my plan, but I can’t say `never’ because I cannot predict what’s going to be in the future.”

Nadal is chasing an 11th title at both Monte Carlo and Roland Garros, which begins on May 27.

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

Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

Thiem reaches third round at Monte Carlo

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MONACO — Dominic Thiem saved a match point and beat Andrey Rublev of Russia 5-7, 7-5, 7-5 in the second round of the Monte Carlo Masters on Tuesday.

Rublev was serving for the match at 5-4, 40-30 but hit a forehand narrowly wide. Fifth-seeded Thiem broke him with backhand pass down the line and held for 6-5.

The Austrian was 15-40 up on Rublev’s serve and clinched victory on his first match point, when Rublev double-faulted with a weak serve into the net.

“I was 10 centimeters from being out of the tournament,” a relieved Thiem said. “But I’m happy that I played two hours and 40 (minutes).”

Thiem has reached the French Open semifinals for the past two years. He next meets 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic or Borna Coric of Croatia, who play their second-round match on Wednesday.

“I’m looking forward to watching Djokovic and Coric in front of the TV, and then playing the winner on Thursday,” Thiem said.

In the second round later Tuesday, fourth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria faced Pierre-Hugues Herbert and seventh-seeded Lucas Pouille played Mischa Zverev.

In remaining first-round play, there were wins for Gilles Simon of France, Marco Cecchinato of Italy and Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany.