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Federer deflects attention to Nadal, Djokovic in Australia

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Roger Federer prefers to think of Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic as the favorites for the Australian Open title, despite entering as defending champion and coming off a worry-free preparation.

“I play down my chances just because I don’t think a 36-year-old should be a favorite of a tournament,” Federer said Sunday on the eve of the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, “It should not be the case.

“That’s why I see things more relaxed, you know, at a later stage of my career.”

The 19-time major winner can afford to relax slightly longer, given the half of the draw that he shares with Djokovic doesn’t start until day two. Top-ranked Nadal will get under way Monday night against Victor Estrella Burgos on Rod Laver Arena, where he lost the final in five sets to Federer last year.

All four singles finalists were 30 or older here last year in what became a tournament for the ages, and three of them are back.

Serena Williams beat her older sister Venus Williams in the final to capture an Open era-record 23rd major here last year but decided against defending her title because she didn’t have enough time to recover from health issues after a complicated childbirth in September.

Venus Williams is seeded fifth and is second match scheduled on center court to get her 77th major under way with a challenging opener against Belinda Bencic.

She’s 4-0 in career head-to-heads against 20-year-old Bencic – who reached a career-high No. 7 ranking in 2016 and who helped Federer win the Hopman Cup title for Switzerland earlier this month – but is coming off an abbreviated preparation that included a loss in the second round to eventual champion Angelique Kerber at the Sydney International last week.

At 37, Venus Williams among the top contenders at Melbourne Park. Others in action on Monday include seventh-seeded Jelena Ostapenko, who meets Francesca Schiavone in a match featuring current vs. former French Open champions, No. 2-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, who opens against Mihaela Buzarnescu, and U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens against Zhang Shuai.

Simona Halep is the No. 1 seed in the women’s draw, and one of six women who can hold the No. 1 ranking at the end of the Australian Open. Halep, who has had back-to-back first-round exits on her last two trips to Melbourne Park, opens on day two against Australian wild-card entry Destanee Aiava.

Only two men can hold the top ranking in the first week of February – Nadal or Federer – regardless of what No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov or No. 4 Alexander Zverev or anybody else does in Melbourne.

Federer returns in contrasting circumstances to his appearance in 2017, when he was coming off a six-month break for an injured left knee and had low expectations about ending a Grand Slam title drought that dated to Wimbledon in 2012.

“This year I hope to win the first few rounds and get rolling hopefully, whereas last year I was just hoping to win,” a match, Federer told his pre-tournament news conference Sunday. “It was more of a `let’s see what happens’ kind of tournament, maybe similar to what Novak or Stan (Wawrinka) or others are going through this year.”

Six-time Australian Open winner Djokovic has been sidelined for six months with an injured right elbow, returning with a remodeled service motion, and 2014 champion Wawrinka has also been out of the game since Wimbledon after surgery on his knee.

Nadal, who won the French and U.S. Open titles last year, has also had a limited preparation restricted to couple of exhibition matches last week as he recovers from a sore knee.

None of that makes them any less of a threat to Federer.

“Rafa, with the year that he’s had, and Novak with the six titles he’s had here, even if it’s unknown how he’s feeling, they could very well be the favorites, too,” Federer said. “If you’re in the draw, you give yourself a chance. That’s what happened for me last year – all ended up way better than I thought it would, as you know.”

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