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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.”

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.

Serena Williams loses in first round at Miami Open to Osaka

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (AP) Serena Williams lost in the first round of the Miami Open on Wednesday, still rusty in her return from pregnancy and unable to overcome a tough draw against Naomi Osaka, who won 6-3, 6-2.

The 20-year-old Osaka, who earned her first career title Sunday at Indian Wells, showed no signs of letup and overpowered the erratic Williams. Osaka had the stronger serve, and in rallies wore down Williams working her from side to side.

The matchup worthy of a final came about because both players are unseeded. Osaka is ranked a career-best 22nd, while Williams’ ranking is 491st after her layoff of more than a year.

Another new mother and former No. 1, three-time Key Biscayne champion Victoria Azarenka, defeated Catherine Bellis 6-3, 6-0.

Williams has endured a first-round defeat only four other times, most recently at the 2012 French Open. The latest loss came at a tournament she has won a record eight times and considers her hometown event.

The match was the last for Williams at Key Biscayne, 90 miles south of her home in Palm Beach Gardens. The tournament is moving next year to the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, and Williams helped with the ceremonial groundbreaking Monday.

After her defeat, she left without speaking to the media.

Because of Williams’ ranking, she entered the draw as a wild card, and looked the part. She was a step slow to balls in the corners and often late with her swing, while she put barely half her first serves in play.

Osaka, who has both American and Japanese citizenship and lives in Fort Lauderdale, was playing her idol for the first time but didn’t seem a bit fazed. She improved to 14-4 this year.

Things may get tougher for her in the second round, when she’ll face No. 4-seeded Elina Svitolina.

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