At French Open, del Potro gets lost off court, wins on it

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PARIS —¬†Back at the French Open for the first time since 2012, Juan Martin del Potro encountered a bit of trouble navigating the grounds, getting lost a few times as he walked around Roland Garros.

“I never find the place where I have to go,” he joked.

All seemed well once he made it out to Court 6 on Tuesday, though. There was del Potro, pounding those intimidating forehands and big serves and only showing signs of his years of wrist troubles when trying to hit his backhand while advancing to the second round with a 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 victory over qualifier Guido Pella in an all-Argentine matchup.

“He played better than me,” Pella summed it up.

Simple enough explanation for the result.

Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, is seeded 29th at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament he last entered five years ago, when he reached the quarterfinals.

Against Pella, he finished with 13 aces and nearly twice as many total winners, 33-17.

Of note: Only one of those winners for del Potro came off his backhand wing, the side he has more problems with after multiple operations on his left wrist. He is right-handed but uses both hands for his double-fisted backhands, which often are reduced to slices.

“He has a weakness,” Pella said. “I tried to find that weakness.”

Del Potro missed 2+ years’ worth of major tournaments because of three operations on his left wrist, returning to Grand Slam action at Wimbledon in 2016.

His comeback really showed progress at the Rio Olympics, when he stunned Novak Djokovic in the first round and wound up with a silver medal, losing to Andy Murray in the final.

“I was able to show today that my weak point, which used to be my weak point until recently – my backhand – has got better. I think his strategy was to force me into using the backhand, and he was able to see that it was no longer my weak point and that I was able to use my backhand quite well,” del Potro said about Pella, a Davis Cup teammate.

“But it’s true that sometimes I was a little upset, because I know that my backhand is not quite what it used to be.”

Clay has never been del Potro’s best surface – his power-based game is better suited to faster surfaces, such as hard courts – but he did reach the French Open semifinals in 2009 before losing to Roger Federer.

“That year,” del Potro said, “I thought it was my year.”

Now, at age 28, he takes things slowly, knowing he has room to improve as he tries to return to the upper reaches of his sport.

Del Potro will face Nicolas Almagro in the second round, with a potential matchup against No. 1 Murray in the third.

“I have adopted a sort of wait-and-see attitude. We’ll see,” del Potro said. “I try not to make things too complicated, and I try not to set long-term objectives. I really play match by match.”


6-time champ Djokovic loses at Miami Open to Benoit Paire

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (AP) Novak Djokovic’s 16-match Key Biscayne winning streak ended, and his struggle to overcome a bothersome right elbow continued.

Djokovic lasted barely an hour at a tournament he has won six times, losing his opening match Friday in the Miami Open to Benoit Paire, 6-3, 6-4.

The defeat was Djokovic’s third in a row. He returned from a six-month injury absence at the Australian Open and lost in the fourth round, and was upset two weeks ago at Indian Wells by Taro Daniel, a 109th-ranked qualifier.

Against the 47th-ranked Paire, Djokovic dropped serve four times, returned poorly and had difficulty anticipating his crafty opponent’s drop shots.

In women’s play, Naomi Osaka’s breakthrough winning streak ended with a loss to No. 4-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-2. Osaka said began feeling ill before the match but didn’t want to retire after upsetting eight-time champion Serena Williams in the first round.

The 20-year-old Osaka is ranked a career-high 22nd and won her first career title last week at Indian Wells.

Djokovic sat out the last half of 2017 because of problems with his racket-swinging arm, saying it had been bothering him for more than a year. He was sidelined again after this year’s Australian Open and said he had a “small medical intervention” on his elbow.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion didn’t seem to favor it against Paire, but his shots lacked their usually snap and sometimes were awkwardly struck, including the last two on match point.

In the first set Djokovic served with a chance to reach 5-all, but from 40-0 he lost five consecutive points and the set. Another dismal stretch came when he was broken at love in the final game of the match.

The loss was Djokovic’s first at Key Biscayne since 2013. He missed last year’s Miami Open but won the title three consecutive years in 2014-16.

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

Top-ranked Halep wins tough 3-setter in Miami

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (AP) Top-ranked Simona Halep of Romania struggled to post a 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 second-round win over French lucky loser Oceane Dodin at the Miami Open on Thursday.

In the first career meeting between the players, Halep allowed the 98th-ranked Dodin to break her serve on six of seven opportunities she presented in the match, which lasted more than two hours.

Halep broke Dodin’s serve for the seventh time at 4-4 in the third set before closing it out.

Halep played in her third career Grand Slam final at the Australian Open in January, but has yet to secure a Grand Slam trophy.

Halep’s best Miami Open was reaching the 2015 semifinals.

Also Thursday, former No. 1 Angelique Kerber of Germany advanced to the third round with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Johanna Larsson of Sweden.

Kerber is 19-4 this year and has reached at least the quarterfinals of all five tournaments she’s played.

Kerber, the 2016 Australian Open and U.S. Open champion, won her first tournament since that U.S. Open at Sydney in January. She also reached the Australian Open semifinals.