AP

Pliskova gives Czech Republic 1-0 lead in Fed Cup final

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STRASBOURG, France — Defending champion Czech Republic took a 1-0 lead over France in the Fed Cup final on Saturday after sixth-ranked Karolina Pliskova won a marathon third set against Kristina Mladenovic.

Pliskova recovered from a second-set blip to beat Mladenovic 6-3, 4-6, 16-14 after the French player came close to achieving a stunning comeback on the indoor hardcourt at Rhenus Sport arena.

Pliskova used her deep groundstrokes to take control of the match at first, but showed her nerves midway through the second set, allowing Mladenovic back into the match with a series of mistakes.

Mladenovic then rallied from 5-2 down in the decider and saved two match points with two big serves, including an ace, to level at 9-9. The Frenchwoman cracked on her serve in the 30th game when she was broken at love.

Mladenovic got off to a nervous start and was broken on her first service game of the match after hitting a double-fault. Pliskova, on the other hand, looked comfortable and quickly found her range with big forehand winners and deep returns.

Positioned well inside the court, the U.S. Open runner-up dictated from the baseline, but Mladenovic gradually found her rhythm and put her opponent under pressure in the sixth game with a series of good returns. Mladenovic converted her third chance when Pliskova double-faulted.

The change in momentum did not last long, though, as Pliskova capitalized on her opponent’s poor second serve to break in the next game. Mladenovic saved one set point at 5-3 but another double fault gifted Pliskova the opener.

The trend continued early in the second set as the Czech displayed her vast array of shots to keep Mladenovic at bay.

But Pliskova put herself into trouble when she double-faulted four times in the seventh game to drop her serve and bring Mladenovic back in the match.

Once again the big-hitting Mladenovic failed to hold when it mattered, and Pliskova broke back before being undone by her mistakes in the next game. This time, Mladenovic did not let her nerves get the better of her, firing a deep forehand winner on her first set point to level.

Pliskova broke in the sixth game of the decider, but failed to hold when she served for the match at 5-3. With the set at 9-9, Mladenovic received medical treatment at the changeover and returned on court with her left thigh bandaged. She did not seem hampered in her moves afterward, getting involved in long rallies although she tried to shorten points at the net.

Pliskova finally won – taking the 30th game with ease – in a match that lasted 3 hours, 48 minutes.

2-time Wimbledon champ Kvitova wins return from knife attack

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PARIS —¬†Sweat-soaked and still wearing her match outfit, Petra Kvitova was looking for someone to hug as she wandered into the players’ lounge in the French Open’s main stadium shortly after leaving the court Sunday.

She found her father, Jiri, and her brother, also Jiri, who greeted her with warm embraces and joyous kisses on the cheek. Kvitova’s family members rarely attend her tournaments, but this was different – “special” was the word she, and others, kept using.

Less than six months after a knife attack at her home, two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova was back competing, winning the first match of her comeback 6-3, 6-2 at Roland Garros against 86th-ranked Julia Boserup of the United States.

“I’m happy with the game, of course,” Kvitova said, “but I mean, it wasn’t really about the game today.”

Indeed, just being there under a cloud-filled sky at Court Philippe Chatrier was a triumph of sorts for Kvitova, who needed surgery on her left hand – the one she uses to hold her racket – after being stabbed by an intruder in the Czech Republic in late December. She was undecided until late last week whether to even try to play in the French Open.

“For us, it’s amazing. It’s miracle. Not even me or Petra thought she could be ready to come back so soon,” said her coach, Jiri Novak. “The prognosis was, let’s just say, not optimistic.”

During her on-court interview, Kvitova addressed Novak, her family and others in her guest box, saying: “Thank you for everything you helped me through (in) this difficult time.”

Several members of her entourage wore black T-shirts with white capital letters on the front that read, “Courage. Belief. Pojd.” That last word, which is the Czech equivalent of “Come on!” and was spelled with a red heart instead of the “O,” is often yelled by Kvitova to celebrate particularly good shots.

“The belief and the mind, the heart, it’s really important,” Kvitova said afterward. “So that’s … what we try to show everyone. I hope that it will be kind of inspiration for other people, as well.”

There were plenty of opportunities for her to clench a fist and scream “Pojd!” on Sunday against Boserup, who was making her debut in the French Open’s main draw and facing a lefty for the first time.

“She’s one of the nicest girls, and we are all really happy to see her back. After what she went through, it’s incredible,” Boserup said. “So it’s a victory for her to be back on court. It was really special.”

Kvitova began things with a quick forehand winner on the opening point.

“Amazing,” she said. “I surprised myself.”

Kvitova wound up compiling the match’s first 10 winners and finished with a 31-9 edge in that category. She took 15 of the first 20 points en route to a 3-0 lead and never really faced a whole lot of resistance, other than when she saved three break points – the only ones she had to deal with in the match – while ahead 3-1.

When it was over, Kvitova dropped her racket near the baseline and removed her blue headband. As she walked to the net for a handshake, her eyes welled with tears.

“We are happy that she is healthy. The hand is good – and also the head,” her brother Jiri said. “Mentally, she is back.”

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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

Venus Williams eases into French Open’s second round after beating Qiang Wang

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In a record 20th appearance at the French Open, Venus Williams eased into the second round with a straight sets victory over Qiang Wang of China.

Williams, who is seeded 10th, saved two set points to win 6-4, 7-6 (3).

The 36-year-old American will play Kurumi Nara of Japan in the next round.