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Andy Murray makes tepid return as he loses exhibition match

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Andy Murray made a tepid return to the court, losing a one-set match 6-2 to Roberto Bautista Agut in the United Arab Emirates exhibitions on Friday.

Murray, who has slipped to 16th in the rankings after ending last year as No. 1, wasn’t scheduled to play at the Abu Dhabi tournament. However, he filled in for Novak Djokovic, after the 12th-ranked Serb withdrew from his semifinal against Bautista Agut earlier in the day with a recurrence of pain in his right elbow.

Murray, who has been struggling to find full fitness following a right hip problem, was initially only in Abu Dhabi to practice before next month’s Australian Open.

He is also expecting to play in Brisbane, Australia next week.

The 30-year-old British player lost his first two service games and trailed 4-0 against the 20th-ranked Spaniard. In the seventh game, he held a service game lasting 12 minutes.

“Obviously I made a slow start and Roberto is one of the best players in the world,” Murray said. “When you haven’t competed for a while, it takes time to get up to that pace. I started to feel a bit better toward the end, but I need to keep improving for sure.”

Murray, a three-time Grand Slam winner, did not move around the court at his usual pace and his first serves were way below his best. He did have one ace late in the fifth game, in which he also executed an athletic lunge at the net to win a point.

What appeared to trouble Murray the most was retrieving shots on the run with his backhand. He sent a few returns into the net, and did not even go for a couple of shots. Even though he moved gingerly, it was understandable as he returned to training only last week.

“It was nice to be able to play,” a relieved-sounding Murray said. “I was just planning on stopping here for a couple of days on the way to Australia to get some practice in with the guys.”

Aside from an exhibition match against Roger Federer back home in Scotland last month, Murray has not played since losing to Sam Querrey in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in July.

Also Friday, U.S. Open runner-up Kevin Anderson of South Africa reached the final after beating fifth-ranked Austrian Dominic Thiem 7-6 (6), 6-4.

Andrey Rublev of Russia secured fifth place in the six-player tournament by beating Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain 6-4, 6-2.

On Saturday, 23-time grand slam champion Serena Williams returns to court with an exhibition match against French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

The 36-year-old Williams, the Australian Open champion, gave birth to her first child in September.

Fed Cup: Stephens to open for US against France in semis

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AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France (AP) U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens will open play for the U.S. against Pauline Parmentier of France in the Fed Cup semifinals.

France No. 1 Kristina Mladenovic and CoCo Vandeweghe will follow on Saturday in the second singles at the new 6,700-capacity Arena Pays d’Aix. France has opted for an indoor clay court.

Mladenovic and Amandine Hesse are set to face Madison Keys and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the doubles on Sunday following the reverse singles.

France and the United States meet for a 14th time, with the Americans holding an 11-2 winning record. The French won their most recent meeting, in 2014.

Both teams are missing their highest-ranked player: No. 8 Venus Williams for the U.S., and No. 7 Caroline Garcia for France.

Germany is facing the Czech Republic in the other semifinal in Stuttgart.

Nadal doesn’t see himself skipping tournaments like Federer

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MONACO (AP) For now, Rafael Nadal doesn’t see himself skipping any major tournaments the way Roger Federer has been sitting out the French Open.

The veterans are back at the top of world tennis, with Nadal needing to win the Monte Carlo Masters this week to avoid losing his top ranking once again to Federer in their seemingly eternal battle for tennis supremacy.

For the second consecutive season, the 36-year-old Federer is skipping the entire clay-court season in order to be at his best on grass.

After coming back from injury to win the Australian Open last year, Federer skipped the clay-court season, won Wimbledon, and retained his Melbourne crown to extend his record tally to 20 majors.

The Swiss star is keeping his aging body fresher by playing a bit less – avoiding Nadal on clay at Roland Garros or elsewhere – and it is working for him.

But Nadal still thinks he can play a full schedule.

“There (are) tournaments that I can’t imagine missing on purpose, because (they are) tournaments that I love to play,” Nadal said on Wednesday. “I don’t see myself missing Monte Carlo on purpose. I don’t see myself missing Wimbledon on purpose, or the U.S. Open, or Australian, or Rome. These kind of events, I don’t see missing (them).”

The 31-year-old Spaniard recently returned from a right hip injury which forced him to retire during the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal against Marin Cilic.

With his 32nd birthday coming up on June 3 – during the French Open – the 16-time Grand Slam champion accepts he may think differently when he gets closer to Federer’s age.

“Of course, when you get older, you need to adjust a little bit more the efforts and the calendar. But for me (it) is difficult to say I don’t play, for example, grass, or I don’t play hard (courts),” Nadal said. “(It) is not in my plan, but I can’t say `never’ because I cannot predict what’s going to be in the future.”

Nadal is chasing an 11th title at both Monte Carlo and Roland Garros, which begins on May 27.

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

Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire