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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.

John McEnroe: Serena Williams would be ranked ‘like 700’ on men’s tour

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LONDON — John McEnroe says Serena Williams would be “like 700” in the world tennis rankings if she played on the men’s tour.

McEnroe, speaking to NPR about his memoir “You Cannot Be Serious,” says Williams is the best female player ever, “no question.” But when asked about her being the best ever, without gender qualifiers, McEnroe was clear that he didn’t think so.

McEnroe says “if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world.”

The former tennis bad boy added that he thought Williams could beat some male players, “but if she had to just play the circuit — the men’s circuit — that would be an entirely different story.”

McEnroe won seven Grand Slam titles in his career. Williams has won 23.

Federer beats Alexander Zverev 6-1, 6-3 for 9th Halle title

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HALLE, Germany– Roger Federer defeated Germany’s Alexander Zverev 6-1, 6-3 to win the Gerry Weber Open for a record ninth time on Sunday.

Playing in his 140th career final, Federer saved the only break point he faced and converted four of his eight opportunities to clinch his 92nd career title in 53 minutes. At 35, the Swiss player became the oldest winner of the grass-court tournament.

“I played unbelievably well. I felt good and never let up,” said Federer, who dropped just nine points on his serve. “It was my best game this week. Nearly everything worked out for me.”

Federer, who skipped the clay-court season after winning the Miami Open in early April, claimed his fourth title of the year, matching Rafael Nadal’s tally, and he will be seeded ahead of his Spanish rival for Wimbledon, which starts in eight days.

Federer had already won the Australian Open before titles in Indian Wells and Miami in 2017.

The 18-time Grand Slam champion was surprised by German veteran Tommy Haas on his return from the two-month break last week in Stuttgart but brushed off any doubts over his form in Halle.

Against the 20-year-old Zverev, who lost last year’s final to Florian Mayer, Federer raced to a 4-0 lead before wrapping up the first set in 22 minutes. Zverev created his only break chance in the opening game of the second, but ultimately was unable to show why he is regarded as one of the sport’s brightest prospects.

“You could have been a bit nicer and allowed me a couple more points,” Zverev joked to his idol.

Federer had words of affection for Zverev, who won their semifinal in Halle last year.

“He’s a very nice lad. I’m very happy for him, how he’s developed in the last years. The future belongs to him,” Federer said.