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Murray searching for focus, consistency at Wimbledon

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LONDON — Based on Andy Murray’s body language alone, reporters’ questions can produce an inordinate amount of consternation.

He’ll puff his cheeks, then let out a sigh. He’ll rub his forehead, then clutch his chin. When answers do arrive, some are preceded by a hesitant “Ummm.” Others begin with “No” or “I wouldn’t have thought so” – or both. “I don’t know” is a popular refrain.

Truth is, given all that is going on at the moment, the No. 1-seeded Murray could be forgiven for having a lot on his mind as he prepares to start his title defense at the All England Club on Monday.

There’s a second child on the way for Murray and his wife – happy news, of course, and on Sunday, he assured a reporter who asked about its potential effect on his tennis this fortnight, “It’s certainly not a distraction in the slightest.”

There’s his inconsistent season and the chance he could relinquish his spot atop the rankings to Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Stan Wawrinka two weeks from now.

There’s the matter of figuring out how to deal with his unorthodox opponent in the grass-court Grand Slam tournament’s opening Centre Court match. They’ve never played each other, but Murray is somewhat familiar with Alexander Bublik, who is from Russia but represents Kazakhstan, just turned 20 and says he finds watching tennis boring: They had an off-court encounter for an ATP promotional video this year.

And there’s also the sore left hip that led one British tabloid to ask readers – at psychic Uri Geller’s prompting – to rub that part of Murray’s body in a front-page photo to heal him.

“I’ve felt fairly calm the last few days, considering how I’ve been feeling,” Murray said.

The hip forced Murray to skip exhibition matches on grass and a few days of training. But he said it’s feeling much better.

“Obviously, this is an extremely important tournament, so you worry a little bit,” he said. “It’s a little bit stressful if you can’t practice for a few days. You really want to be preparing, training, as much as you can to get ready and make you feel better, especially when you hadn’t had any matches.”

He is 21-9 so far in 2017, and his lone title came with the benefit of facing only one player ranked in the top 25.

Still, here was Roger Federer’s assessment of Murray’s chances at a place where in 2013 he became the first British man in 77 years to grab the trophy: “If he’s anything close to 100 percent physically, I consider him one of the big favorites to win the tournament. It’s that simple.”

Murray did manage to reach the semifinals at the French Open, but since then he has played only one match – and lost.

“I can take some anti-inflammatories if my hip flares up,” he said. “Hopefully that’s not the case.”

Could be a lot of running required Monday, given the 134th-ranked Bublik’s penchant for sliced returns, drop shots, lobs and run-around forehands from midcourt.

“My game is unpredictable. I don’t even know what I’m going to do,” Bublik said. “When the ball is coming to me, I decide right before I hit. So I don’t have a plan.”

Murray is aware of all of that.

“Some more sort of shots that guys may play in exhibitions, he tries when he’s out there,” Murray said. “That’s what I’ve heard.”

Bublik acknowledges he’ll win more matches when he can “find a balance between making jokes and (being) a showoff.”

He lost in the final round of qualifying last week, but made it into the main draw thanks to another player’s withdrawal.

Bublik is known on tour for possessing, as Murray put it, “a big personality,” and that came through vividly during a session with a group of reporters at the All England Club.

Among other topics, Bublik discussed the “famous” Russian rappers he expects in his guest box on Monday; the tattoos on his right forearm (a map showing his hometown of St. Petersburg and a couple of quotations attributed to Eminem); and his disdain for following his own sport.

“Even Rafa and Fed, you watch, the guys are putting everything in the court. It’s not interesting,” Bublik said with a mischievous grin. “I mean, it’s interesting to see the highlights … but when they’re rallying for 45 shots, you’re sitting and you’re feeling, `OK, can I quit tennis, please?'”

Very little of Murray’s sort of hemming and hawing there.

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.

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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.