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Service ace: Djokovic back with rebuilt serve at Aussie Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Novak Djokovic is back from six months off the tour with a remodeled service motion partly inspired by Andre Agassi and a growing confidence he can get his sore right elbow through the Australian Open.

No man has more Australian Open titles than Djokovic, who has six in all and – until last year’s shocking second-round exit – had won five of the six contested from 2011 to 2016.

Djokovic is seeded 14th and will be coming off just a couple of exhibition matches to prepare for his first-round encounter against Donald Young.

The 12-time major winner is in the same quarter as No. 4 Alexander Zverev, No. 5 Dominic Thiem and 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka, who confirmed Saturday he’d return at Melbourne Park from his own six-month layoff following surgery on his left knee.

They’re all in the same half of the draw as defending champion Roger Federer, who last year returned from an extended injury time out to beat Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final. Federer went on to win Wimbledon for his 19th major and finished the year ranked No. 2 behind Nadal, who won the French and U.S. Open titles.

That is giving Djokovic some hope.

“I mean, Roger and Rafa’s year last year has shown age is just a number, especially in Roger’s case,” Djokovic said Saturday in his pre-tournament news conference. “I mean, he’s a great example of someone that manages to take care of himself, knows how to prepare well and peak at the right time.

“He won a couple Grand Slams. Who would predict that after his six months of absence, so … everything is possible really.”

Djokovic had contested 51 consecutive Grand Slams until he missed last year’s U.S. Open during his rehabilitation.

Off the court, the 30-year-old Serbian said he enjoyed a closer-to-normal family life off the court, including being there when his wife, Jelena, gave birth to their second child – a daughter Tara in September.

On the court, he used the time to work closely with coaches Agassi and Radek Stepanek to refine his service motion to improve the technique and “release the load from the elbow, obviously something that I have to do because I have the injury.”

Now it’s a less dramatic, more compact swing and he was happy with how it worked in an exhibition win over Thiem earlier in the week.

“It’s not entirely different, but at the beginning even those small tweaks and changes have made a lot of difference mentally,” he said. “I needed time to kind of get used to that change, understand whether that’s good or not good for me.

Agassi had to modify his own service motion because of an injury in his career and he had input into the redesign for Djokovic.

“Both Radek and Andre have discussed a lot before the information came across to me,” Djokovic said. “They spent a lot of hours analyzing my serve. I did, too.”

Djokovic said his elbow wasn’t 100 percent rehabilitated, but he was convinced by medical experts that he wouldn’t do any further damage by playing in Australia.

Injuries to leading players have been a focus of attention in Australia. Nadal is returning from a lingering right knee problem and five-time finalist Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori have already withdrawn.

In recent months, meanwhile, ATP Finals winner Grigor Dimitrov and Zverev have moved up to No. 3 and No. 4 in the rankings, respectively, and are growing in confidence that they’re on the cusp of Grand Slam breakthroughs.

Dimitrov said he’s a better player than he was when he lost the semifinal here last year to Nadal, and Zverev is aiming to go deep into the second week for the first time at a major.

“I’ve showed on multiple occasions over the year that I can play and beat the best guys in the world,” Zverev said. “Not trying to sound cocky or anything, but I’ve always said that I’ve always been working hard physically, I’m always trying to improve the performance at the Grand Slams. Hopefully I can do so,” in Australia.

Nadal pulled out of the ATP Finals and skipped warmups tournaments before the Australian Open.

“Is the first time I am here without playing official match,” Nadal said. “But I feel good. I really hope to be ready. I feel myself more or less playing well.”

Nadal’s career has regularly been disrupted by injuries, but he sees a need for a more thorough examination of the tennis schedule after the latest spate of injuries.

“There is too many injuries on the tour. I am not the one to say, but somebody has to look about what’s going on,” he said. “When something is happening, you need to analyze why.”

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