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Pursuing a record 23rd major title, Serena Williams opens with win

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) For five games in the second set, Serena Williams played almost flawless tennis in her first-round match at the Australian Open.

Then came the rustiness that tends to follow a lengthy layoff, giving Belinda Bencic a glimmer of hope, before Williams regained her composure to win 6-4, 6-3 on Tuesday. The six-time Australian Open champion improved her impressive record in the first round of Grand Slam tournaments to 65-1.

The No. 2-ranked Williams’ priority here is an Open era record 23rd major title. She’s has taken the first step, beating a player who was seeded 12th here last year and reached a career-high No. 7 ranking.

“She was just recently in the top 10. I knew it would be one of the toughest first-round matches I’ve ever played,” the newly engaged Williams said.

In round two she’ll meet Lucie Safarova, who beat Yanina Wickmayer 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-1.

Bencic got one service break in the first set, but only took two points in the first three games on Williams’ serve in the second.

Serving for the match at 6-4, 5-1, things changed for Williams. She finished her 2016 after the U.S. Open, resting injuries, and started 2017 with an error-prone loss in New Zealand.

Williams served only her second double-fault of the match to give Bencic a break-point chance, and the Swiss teenager converted it with a crosscourt winning forehand.

Bencic held at love to close the gap, but then faced a match point.

Williams double-faulted again on her first match point, but made no mistake on her second. She finished with 30 winners and 30 unforced errors, eight errors and four double-faults.

Karolina Pliskova and Johanna Konta both made their Grand Slam breakthroughs last year, both prepared for the season’s first major with title runs in Australia and both advanced with straight sets wins.

U.S. Open finalist Pliskova following her title win at the Brisbane International with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Sara Sorribes Tormo.

“I feel good on the court, especially when I win my first title in the first week of the year,” said Pliskova, who beat Serena Williams in the U.S. Open semifinals before losing to Angelique Kerber. “So I’m ready for the tournament.”

Konta, who won the Sydney International title last week, had a 7-5, 6-2 win over Kirsten Flipkens.

“I definitely love playing here. It’s a dream,” Konta said. “A lot has happened in the last year, but I’m just enjoying playing and getting better each day.”

Ninth-seeded Konta was a surprise semifinalist in her debut at the Australian Open last year, starting with a first-round win over Venus Williams and sparking a strong 2016 season which ended with her in the top 10.

Also advancing were No. 21 Caroline Garcia, No. 30 Ekaterina Makarova and Naomi Osaka of Japan beat Thai wild-card entry Luksika Kumkhum 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-5.

Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic got his campaign started with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over Dustin Brown. The No. 3-seeded Raonic reached the semifinals here last year in his best run so far at Melbourne Park.

No. 24 Alexander Zverev held off Robin Haase 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2, No. 25 Gilles Simon beat U.S. wild-card entry Michael Mmoh 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 and No. 32 Philipp Kohlschreiber advanced.

Sharapova loses to Rybarikova at Kremlin Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) Maria Sharapova was beaten by Magdalena Rybarikova 7-6 (3), 6-4 in the first round of the Kremlin Cup on Tuesday, ending her bid for a second title in two weeks.

Sharapova, who won the Tianjin Open two days ago, brought her usual power but lacked accuracy with some wild swings on key points.

“I felt fine physically, to be honest, especially after having played five matches in five days (in Tianjin). That was a big surprise,” Sharapova said. “Maybe I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been … Maybe if this tournament hadn’t been in Moscow, I wouldn’t have played it.”

Sharapova was under pressure on serve from the start and saved six break points before finally being broken to 6-5. She responded by breaking Rybarikova, but Sharapova’s double fault at 4-3 in the tiebreaker handed the Slovakian the momentum to close out the set.

Rybarikova, seeded eighth, sealed the match after saving two break points to lead 5-4, then breaking Sharapova in the next game. Rybarikova will play Alize Cornet in the second round.

Six months after she returned from a 15-month doping ban, Sharapova is still trying to move back up the rankings from her current position of 57th. Her first tour appearance in Moscow in a decade drew a large and enthusiastic crowd despite taking place on a Tuesday afternoon.

Also Tuesday, seventh-seeded Julia Goerges beat Russian qualifier Polina Monova 6-0, 6-3 to set up a second-round meeting with Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan.

In the men’s Kremlin Cup tournament, sixth-seeded Damir Dzumhur defeated Thomas Fabbiano 6-3, 0-6, 6-2.

Maria Sharapova wins her 1st title since doping ban

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TIANJIN, China (AP) Maria Sharapova won her first WTA title since returning from a doping ban after defeating Aryna Sabalenka to win the Tianjin Open on Sunday.

The Russian, a tournament wild card, overcame Belarusian teenager Sabalenka 7-5, 7-6 (8) despite trailing heavily in both sets.

Sharapova last won a title at the Italian Open in May 2015.

The former top-ranked player and owner of five major titles, including the 2006 U.S. Open, tested positive for the newly banned drug meldonium at the Australian Open in January 2016. That led to a 15-month doping ban, which expired in April.

“Such a special, special tournament, and victory for me, one that I’ll remember forever,” Sharapova said. “Sometimes you never know when it will all come together but it happened to me this week in Tianjin.”

Sharapova displayed resilience as she came from behind in both sets to overcome her 19-year-old opponent.

Sabalenka led 4-1 in the opener and 5-1 in the second before relenting to Sharapova’s greater big-match experience. It was Sharapova’s 36th WTA singles title.

The 30-year-old Sharapova played in her first Grand Slam tournament following the ban at the U.S. Open in August, where she reached the fourth round. Sunday’s result will lift Sharapova up to No. 57 in the world rankings.