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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.

Wozniacki into Dubai final, waiting for Kerber or Svitolina

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - FEBRUARY 20:  Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark plays backhand during her match against Daria Kasatkina of Russia on day two of the WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on February 20, 2017 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Caroline Wozniacki reached her second final in two weeks by beating Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia 6-3, 6-4 at the Dubai Tennis Championships on Friday.

Wozniacki was a finalist at Doha last weekend, when she lost to Karolina Pliskova.

“Pretty good couple of weeks for me,” Wozniacki said. “Very happy how I have managed to get through these two weeks, because it’s been very tiring mentally.

“The fact that I have just been staying in there and keep grinding, I’m kind of proud of that.”

This will be Wozniacki’s 44th career singles final. She’s won 25 titles.

The last time she reached back-to-back finals was at the 2014 U.S. Open and Tokyo tournaments. She didn’t win either of them.

Wozniacki won the Dubai title in 2011. She’s reached at least the semifinals in six of the seven years she’s played in Dubai, compiling a 22-5 record.

“I love playing here,” she said. “To have a finals here again, it just feels good.”

Wozniacki posted an impressive 70 percent first-serve percentage against Sevastova. She lost her serve on the one break point she faced, in the eighth game of the second set, but otherwise was impenetrable on her serve.

Wozniacki plays top-seeded Angelique Kerber or seventh-seeded Elina Svitolina in the final on Saturday. She has a losing record against both potential finalists: Kerber leads 8-5, while Svitolina leads 1-0.

The semifinal finish will deliver Sevastova her first top-25 ranking.

Wozniacki back in Dubai Champs semifinals

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - FEBRUARY 23:  Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark plays a backhand during her quarter final match against Catherine Bellis of United States on day five of the WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on February 23, 2017 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Caroline Wozniacki reached her sixth career Dubai Tennis Championships semifinals when she defeated Catherine “Cici” Bellis 6-3, 6-2 on Thursday.

Wozniacki, who won the Dubai title in 2011, reached the Doha final last week. She’s played nine matches in the last nine days.

Bellis, the youngest player in the draw at 17, scored the biggest win of her six-month-old pro career on Wednesday when she upset her first top-10 player, sixth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland.

The American started the match confidently, jumping out to 3-1, but couldn’t sustain the momentum.

“It was really fun for me to see what the highest level is (like),” Bellis said.

In a fight strictly from the baseline, Wozniacki won the next nine games to lead 6-3, 4-0.

“I stepped into the court a little bit after being down 3-1 and just tried to keep the pressure on her, make her think a little bit, not give her too many free points,” said Wozniacki, who had her upper left leg wrapped.

She will play Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia in the semifinals. The 35th-ranked Sevastova reached her first semifinal of the season via a 6-4, 7-5 win over Wang Qiang of China.

“She’s a player that mixes the pace up quite a bit,” Wozniacki said of Sevastova. “She’s definitely going to try and get me out of my own rhythm.”

Seventh-seeded Elina Svitolina of the Ukraine improved her career record against Lauren Davis to 4-0 after defeating the American 6-0, 6-4 in the quarterfinals.

Svitolina, a semifinalist last year, won her fifth career title at the Taiwan Open this month. She’ll play either top-seeded Angelique Kerber or Ana Konjuh of Croatia.