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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.

Two-time champ Azarenka gets Australian Open wild card

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Two-time former champion Victoria Azarenka has been awarded a wild card for the Australian Open.

Azarenka, who won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013, has been involved in a custody dispute involving her son Leo, who was born last Dec. 19.

She hasn’t competed anywhere since Wimbledon, where she lost to Simona Halep in the fourth round on July 10. The dispute with her former partner started shortly after Wimbledon ended.

Azarenka has played only six matches this year and is ranked 208th.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said on Wednesday that every assistance would be provided to the former No. 1, adding “Vika’s current situation is obviously very difficult for her and we have reached out to offer any support we can.”

The Australian Open starts on Jan. 15.

Nadal, Muguruza win ITF player of the year awards

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LONDON — Rafael Nadal and Garbine Muguruza have won the International Tennis Federation’s player of the year awards.

At 31, Nadal becomes the oldest ITF men’s world champion after a season in which he won a 10th French Open and a third U.S. Open.

The Spaniard also became the oldest player to finish the year at No. 1 since the ATP rankings began in 1973.

Muguruza dropped only one set en route to her first Wimbledon title and finished the year at No. 2 behind Simona Halep.

“Becoming ITF world champion in such a competitive year is amazing for me,” said Muguruza, who is also Spanish. “(Nadal) is a great role model for all of us, so it is a great moment for tennis in Spain.”