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After injuries, Stephens plays 1st match of ’17 at Wimbledon

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LONDON (AP) Sloane Stephens hadn’t played a competitive match in nearly a year because of an injured left foot, so when she stepped on the grass of Wimbledon on Tuesday, simply being there was significant.

“Just getting on the court, I was relieved, I was happy, excited,” Stephens said. “I mean, all good emotions.”

Less than six months after foot surgery, Stephens returned to action with a 6-2, 7-5 loss to Alison Riske in an all-U.S. matchup in the first round at the All England Club.

Stephens was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon in 2013, back when she appeared to be a rising star in tennis, making at least the fourth round at six consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. She reached the semifinals at the Australian Open earlier that year and climbed to a career-high No. 11 in the WTA rankings.

But she had a stress reaction in her foot last year, something she said was bothering her when she lost in the first round at the Rio Olympics. That was Stephens’ fourth loss in a row – her most recent victory came in the second round of Wimbledon a year ago – and the last time she participated in a tournament until Tuesday.

Stephens wore a walking boot for months after the Olympics, waiting to heal.

“They’re like, `It will get better,’ and whatever. Obviously it didn’t,” she said.

She thought she’d be able to play again at the start of this year and even traveled to Australia, intending to enter a tournament in Sydney. But while Stephens was there, the foot wasn’t feeling right, and an MRI showed that it had worsened: She had a stress fracture and wound up having surgery in January, which alleviated the pain.

During her time off, she did some television work for Tennis Channel.

And about 1+ months ago, she resumed training.

Her ranking now down to 336th, the 24-year-old Stephens had permission from her doctor to get back to tournament play, she said, “So I was like, `Why not?”‘

“I did the best I could. I’m pleased with – I mean, obviously not that I didn’t win – but that I was able to get out there and I was pain-free,” she said. “I played decent.”

Stephens recognizes that it will take time for her to get her game back to where it used to be and to grow accustomed to dealing with match play.

“When they said I was playing her, I thought, `Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know she was coming back.’ So it was a surprise. But obviously she’s been through a lot, so it’s awesome she’s back on the court,” said Riske, who is ranked 46th.

“I thought she did a heck of a job. She was running well. She was hitting solid shots. I mean, I’m sure as time goes on, she’s only going to get closer to where she was, if she’s not there already.”


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.