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Andy Murray confident he can break Aussie drought

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Andy Murray has become a father, gained the No. 1 ranking and received a knighthood since he left Melbourne Park 50 weeks ago after losing a fifth Australian Open final.

Stress weighed him down at the season-opening Grand Slam in 2016, to the point where he thought about quitting the tournament to head back to Britain to be with his heavily pregnant wife. But even that would have presented problems, considering his father-in-law was in a Melbourne hospital after collapsing with an illness while watching a match at the Australian Open.

Clearly, he’s in a better place this year as he seeks to end his Australian drought.

“I obviously feel pretty confident after the way that last season finished,” he said. “I do love it here. I love the conditions. I have played really well here over the years, and just haven’t managed to get over the final hurdle.

“But, yeah, I think I’m in a decent position, for sure, to do it. I think I have a chance to win here. I’m playing well. Practice has been good. I feel healthy. I’ll give it a good shot.”

Rumors circulated last year that Murray would go home before facing Djokovic, his Melbourne nemesis, in the final. As it was, he was on the first flight to Heathrow after losing in straight sets – his fourth Australian Open final defeat to Djokovic and fifth overall dating back to 2010. His wife, Kim Sears, gave birth to their first child, Sophia Olivia, the following week.

He confirmed Saturday, two days before he opens the 2017 tournament against Illya Marchenko of Ukraine, that he really had thought about leaving early.

“It was a tough tournament, obviously the situation with Kim and the baby coming was tough,” he said. “Then with what happened with Nigel during the event made it really kind of awkward because there was times … it was like `I want to home for the birth,’ but then I’m not just going to leave while my father-in-law is also in hospital.

“It was tough, and certainly not a position I would want to put myself in again, or my wife, or any of my family really.”

Murray had a stunning end to 2016 after reuniting with Ivan Lendl as coach in June, winning his second Wimbledon title, defending his Olympic gold medal, and adding titles in Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna and Paris to end Djokovic’s 122-week stint at No. 1.

He then clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking by winning the ATP Finals, beating the players seeded second, third, fourth and fifth.

He set a record for most time between gaining the No. 2 and No. 1 rankings – seven years, and 82 days. But he has set a lot of timely records for British tennis in the last three seasons and, in Queen Elizabeth II’s New Year’s honors list, he received a knighthood from the British monarch for reaching the pinnacle of the sport.

Roger Federer was asked if he could remember what it was like back in 2004 when he first became No. 1, and how he’d explain it to Murray.

“It definitely feels different because everybody comes up to you and says, `You’re the best,'” said Federer, who spent a record 302 weeks at No. 1. “You start walking around a bit differently. Just feel more confident overall in your shots.”

Murray said he hasn’t really felt a difference yet, but it has only been eight weeks. Considering how hard it was to achieve the top spot, he’s hoping it doesn’t take twice the energy to hang on to it.

“It is a mindset thing, because I think it could be quite easy that once you get to No. 1 that you think, `Well, actually, I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing,'” he said. “The reality is that things obviously keep moving on, the game will get better, I’ll obviously get older, the young guys will continue to improve, and also Novak and Roger and Stan (Wawrinka) and Rafa (Nadal) and all the guys at the top are still going to be wanting to get there.

“I need to continue to improve. I for sure need to keep working hard.”

One thing he doesn’t really want to change is how people refer to him now that formally he’s recognized as Sir Andy Murray, particularly the broadcasters.

“I’m more than happy just being Andy. That’s enough for me,” he said. “Yeah, if they call me Andy, I’d be happy with that.”

Andy Murray losses to Thiem in Barcelona Open semifinals

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BARCELONA, Spain — World No. 1 Andy Murray lost to Dominic Thiem of Austria 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in the Barcelona Open semifinals on Saturday.

Murray’s defeat came a week after he exited the third round at Monte Carlo. That loss prompted Murray to enter Barcelona to whip up some form for the French Open following a right elbow injury.

Nine-time winner Rafael Nadal played Horacio Zeballaos of Argentina in the other semifinal later Saturday.

Thiem started strong, breaking Murray’s first two service games before adding a third break en route to taking the first set.

The ninth-ranked Thiem had a break point in the second set, but Murray held serve and broke him back to even the match at a set apiece.

Murray was again in trouble at 4-2 down in the decisive set, and folded when he failed to successfully return Thiem’s deep lob on match point.

It was Thiem’s first win in three meetings against Murray.

Sharapova’s return ends in semis at Porsche Grand Prix

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STUTTGART, Germany — Maria Sharapova’s first tournament since her controversial return to tennis is over after losing to Kristina Mladenovic of France in the Porsche Grand Prix semifinals.

Mladenovic beat former top-ranked Sharapova 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 Saturday.

In her fourth match following a 15-month doping ban, the Russian was left to rue missing 13 of her 16 break-point opportunities as Mladenovic rallied to win in 2 hours, 38 minutes.

The 19th-ranked Mladenovic, who ousted two-time defending champion Angelique Kerber on Thursday, next plays the winner of the other semifinal between fourth-seeded Simona Halep and last year’s runner-up Laura Siegemund.

Five-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova, who tested positive for meldonium at last year’s Australian Open, had been given a wild card to enter the Stuttgart event after losing her ranking because of the ban.