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Djokovic under threat from Murray heading into Paris Masters

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PARIS — Novak Djokovic heads into the Paris Masters with his No. 1 ranking under serious threat from Andy Murray, and in the rare position of being second favorite.

Djokovic is looking to win the tournament for the fourth straight year and fifth time overall. But he has been in erratic form over the past few months and is not playing with the confidence he showed here last year, when he crushed Murray 6-2, 6-4 in the final.

On current form Murray has the edge, and the second-ranked Scot can overtake Djokovic if he wins and the Serb doesn’t reach the final.

“You’ve got to give (Murray) credit for what he’s done in the last three or four months, the second part of the year is quite incredible,” Djokovic told reporters Sunday on the eve of the tournament. “He’s playing maybe the best tennis he’s ever played, very consistent, very strong. He definitely deserves to be in the position of being No. 1 at the end of the year. But that doesn’t just depend on him.”

Djokovic guarantees to keep No. 1 if he reaches the final, and Murray is not overly optimistic of knocking him off his perch.

“Obviously he could win the event and, if I lose in the first round, then I am a long way from being No. 1,” said Murray, who trails Djokovic 10-24 in career matches. “I’ve never won (the Paris Masters) before, so to just expect that you’re going to win the tournament would be silly.”

Murray won the Erste Bank Open in Vienna on Sunday for his third straight tournament win and career-high seventh of the year.

“In some other years, a year like this would easily (have) been enough to be No. 1 in the world,” Murray said. “But I am obviously getting closer.”

Murray, who has a first-round bye, will start his tournament against Fernando Verdasco or Feliciano Lopez.

Like Murray, Djokovic also has seven titles this year, matching his tally from 2013 and 2014, but will fall short of the 11 he won in an utterly dominant 2015.

The 29-year-old Djokovic owns a record 30 Masters titles. He is a 12-time Grand Slam champion and has won all four majors.

But after winning the elusive French Open for the first time in June, his form evaporated.

“Winning the French Open brought a lot of joy to me, but on the other hand has taken away a lot from me,” he said. “I felt a little bit exhausted, I must say, and maybe less motivated. So I had to rediscover that feeling of being on the court and pushing myself.”

He lost in the third round at Wimbledon to American Sam Querrey and in the first round to Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina at the Olympic Games.

Although Djokovic won the first set in the U.S. Open final, Stan Wawrinka rallied to beat him.

At the Shanghai Masters two weeks ago, Djokovic lost 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals to Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, an opponent he had beaten in five previous meetings.

“The last couple of months were not easy,” Djokovic said. “Mentally I just had to redefine my goals, things that are happening on and off the court.”

Djokovic clearly needed to gather his thoughts.

“It’s important to take time,” he said. “Really understand what the next step is going to be, professionally, privately.”

He feels much better now.

“I feel great and rejuvenated, very happy to be back in the city where I have wonderful memories,” he said. “It gives me a lot of emotions and butterflies in my stomach when I think about the last time I was here.”

Djokovic, who also won here in 2009, faces either Nicolas Almagro of Spain or Gilles Muller of Luxembourg in the second round.

Milos Raonic, who also has a first-round bye, is still feeling the effects of ankle injury that forced him to withdraw ahead of his China Open semifinal three weeks ago.

“It’s a partial tear,” said the big-serving Canadian. “It’s still a little bit of an issue … I tape it up to limit how much my ankle can move.”

Associated Press writer Eric Willemsen in Vienna contributed to this report.

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.