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Rusty Nadal struggles in loss to Gasquet in exhibition match

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Rafael Nadal struggled with his timing and normally potent shot-making as he started his delayed preparations for the Australian Open with an error-filled 6-4, 7-5 loss to Richard Gasquet in the Kooyong Classic exhibition event Tuesday.

Nadal’s readiness for the first Grand Slam of the year had been in doubt after the top-ranked Spaniard pulled out of an exhibition in Abu Dhabi and a tournament in Brisbane to start the season, citing his lack of preparation following an injury layoff at the end of 2017.

Nadal didn’t appear to be hindered by the lingering right knee injury that forced him to withdraw from the ATP Finals in November, but his uneven performance will likely lead to other questions about his match form heading into the Australian Open next week.

“It was a long year last year, so I had to start the preparation (for this season) a little bit later than usual. But here I arrive in plenty of time and it’s a good day to start feeling again … of playing a match,” Nadal said in an on-court interview following the match.

“It’s still a good test for me and a good practice and that’s the most important thing.”

He downplayed any concerns about his knee, saying, “If I’m not feeling good, probably I will not be here. So that’s the good news.”

Nadal had particular trouble with his forehand on Tuesday, repeatedly misfiring into the net or spraying his shots several feet beyond the baseline.

After Gasquet broke Nadal twice to take a 3-0 lead in the second set, however, the Spaniard suddenly began hitting the lines and playing with his usual intensity, fighting back to level the match at 3-all.

His concentration then appeared to dip again as he made several more unforced errors to drop serve to go down 6-5. Gasquet, who has never beaten Nadal in 15 competitive matches on the ATP Tour, then served out the match.

The Australian Open has already been hit by the withdrawal of three-time major winner Andy Murray, who has been sidelined by a hip injury since Wimbledon last year and underwent surgery on Monday in Melbourne after pulling out of the tournament.

Japanese star Kei Nishikori has also withdrawn with a wrist injury and Serena Williams pulled out after saying she wasn’t ready to defend her title following the birth of her daughter in September.

Novak Djokovic is also working his way back into top shape after sitting out the second half of 2017 with an elbow injury. He also withdrew from the Abu Dhabi exhibition event and Qatar Open at the start of the season, but was a late entry to the Kooyong Classic. He plays his first match since Wimbledon against No. 5 Dominic Thiem on Wednesday.

Nadal, who enjoyed a resurgent 2017 after losing in last year’s Australian Open final to Roger Federer, said despite the rustiness at Kooyong, he still believes he’ll be ready to compete at Melbourne Park next week.

“My idea is just to keep practicing hard the next couple of days to be ready for the beginning of the Australian Open,” he said.

Djokovic: Players held meeting, but boycott not discussed

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Novak Djokovic has rejected reports that leading men could potentially boycott future Grand Slams over prize money, though he did confirm that players held an hour-long private meeting on the eve of the Australian Open to discuss issues pertinent to the ATP Tour.

Djokovic, who is president of the ATP Player Council, didn’t specify what issues were raised at the meeting, but said media reports stating that he proposed forming a tennis players’ union to push for a greater share of revenue generated by tournaments were exaggerated or largely incorrect.

“I saw that you’ve portrayed me as someone who is very greedy, asks for more money and wants to boycott,” Djokovic told a news conference following his first-round win over Donald Young on Tuesday. “What happened is that we, players, just wanted to have us players talk about certain topics. I don’t think there is anything unhealthy about that.”

Most other players have declined to talk about what was discussed at the meeting, though Kevin Anderson, the player council vice president, told British media on Monday that the topic of prize money was raised.

No. 4-ranked Alexander Zverev said Djokovic did most of the talking at the meeting, which was attended by all of the top male players at the season’s first major.

“I don’t really have a position (on the subject) because that was the first time it was mentioned,” he said. “Everybody listened to it. That’s about it.”

According to the Daily Mail newspaper, which first reported the meeting on Monday, Djokovic was said to have asked all non-players to leave the room and then gave a lengthy speech from the stage about forming a players’ union, accompanied by an Australian lawyer.

On Tuesday, however, Djokovic denied that any lawyer was present or that he raised other issues related to equal prize money for men and women or the prospect of boycotting future Grand Slams if player demands weren’t met.

“I know that you guys are trying to take this forward several steps,” said Djokovic, who was returning from six months on the sidelines with a right elbow injury. “Obviously you’re talking about union, you’re talking about boycott, you’re talking about radical decisions to make … so we can get financial compensations the way we deserve it. But there was no talks about that.”

Total prize money for the Australian Open reached 55 million Australian dollars ($42 million) this year, a 10 percent increase over 2017. The men’s and women’s singles champions will both take home AU$4 million ($3 million), while first-round losers will make AU$60,000 ($45,700).

While players at the top of the sport are making more at the Grand Slams, those ranked below 100 who play primarily on the lower-tier Challenger Tour and don’t automatically qualify for the majors still struggle to get by.

Six years ago, when Federer was president of the ATP Player Council, the top male players put pressure on the Grand Slams to dramatically increase prize money – and the tournaments responded. The total purse at the 2013 Australian Open rose significantly, with the biggest jumps going to early-round losers. First-round losers that year earned AU$27,600, a 32 percent increase from the year before.

While players at this year’s Australian Open were staying quiet on talk of starting a players’ union, others connected with the sport weighed in on social media. Former No. 1-ranked Andy Roddick tweeted that “it’s been a good idea for a long time,” while Andy Murray’s mother, Judy, said she “totally agreed.”

“What about an umbrella union that represents men and women? That would give the players a much stronger voice to challenge the Slams and the joint ATP/WTA events. Better together,” she wrote.

Djokovic acknowledged the sport is moving in the right direction on issues related to prize money, though work remains to be done.

“I’m part of the council, but I don’t sit on these negotiation tables,” he said. “I’m just glad that I’m part of it, that I can contribute to a better sport today, and the future.”

2016 champ Kerber into 2nd round, extends streak to 10 wins

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Former champion Angelique Kerber continued her resurgent run with a 6-0, 6-4 win over fellow German Anna-Lena Friedsam to reach the second round of the Australian Open.

Kerber raced through the first set in 17 minutes Tuesday but had her struggles in the second and was broken twice before converting her second match point and extending her streak to 10 consecutive wins.

She opened the year by winning four singles matches at the Hopman Cup, where Germany lost the final to Switzerland, and won the Sydney International last week for her first title since the 2016 U.S. Open.

Kerber made her major breakthrough two years ago in Australia, where she beat Serena Williams in the final, and went on to reach the Wimbledon final and win the U.S. Open in a year when she rose to No. 1.

Her ranking slid into the 20s in 2017, but she’s coming back into the kind of form which makes her a title contender at Melbourne Park. She and Maria Sharapova are the only former Australian Open champions in the women’s draw.

“I’m just enjoying it on court again,” Kerber said. “Something is going on with Australia and me. I love this country – I enjoy my stay, play my best tennis.

“The year starts good – I’m just hoping to continue this.”

Kerber will celebrate her 30th birthday on Thursday, when she has a second-round match against either Nao Habino or Donna Vekic.

No. 9 Johanna Konta beat Madison Brengle 6-3, 6-1, handing the U.S. a 10th loss in 11 first-round women’s matches.

The first-round upsets included Venus Williams, U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens and CoCo Vandeweghe, a semifinalist here and at the U.S. Open last year.

“It’s a testament to how many great first- and second-round matches we have,” Konta said of the early upsets. “Shows how much depth we have in the women’s game right now.”

Konta will next meet Bernarda Pera, a lucky loser in the qualifying tournament who registered the second win by an American woman at the tournament when she beat Russian qualifier Anna Blinkova 6-2, 6-2.

No. 20 Barbora Strycova’s 6-1, 7-5 win over wild-card entry Kristie Ahn made it 2-12 for the U.S. women with two yet to play.

Former No. 1-ranked Karolina Pliskova, the 2016 U.S. Open finalist, opened with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Veronica Cepede Royg, No. 8 Caroline Garcia beat Carina Witthoft 7-5, 6-3 and No. 29 Lucie Safarova defeated Ajla Tomljanovic 7-5, 6-3.

Fernando Verdasco, a semifinalist here in 2009, had a 6-1, 7-5, 7-5 win over No. 20 and fellow Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut.

Defending champion Roger Federer had a night match against Aljaz Bedene.

More AP coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/AustralianOpen