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Venus Williams, US champion Stephens out in 1st round

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) In her first match at the Australian Open since a Williams sister was guaranteed to win the title, Venus Williams lost in the first round to Belinda Bencic and ensured it cannot happen in 2018.

Venus lost last year’s final at Melbourne Park to younger sibling Serena, who clinched an Open era-record 23rd major but hasn’t played a Grand Slam tournament since because of her pregnancy and the birth of her first child.

The 6-3, 7-5 loss for Venus Williams was her first in five career meeting with Bencic, who lost to Serena Williams in the first round here last year.

The 20-year-old Bencic saved five break points in the eighth game before a rain delay caused an almost half-hour suspension of play as the roof was closed on Rod Laver Arena. She returned on a roll, winning the next six points to hold serve and then clinch the set.

Bencic teamed up with Roger Federer to win the Hopman Cup for Switzerland in the first week of the season, and had the 19-time major winner’s parents in the crowd supporting her on Monday.

It must have helped, having overcome the surprise when the draw was made that she’d have to play another Williams in the first round.

“Honestly, the first reaction of everyone was `Oh, bad luck.’ But of course, it would be nice to play somebody easier first round and get your rhythm a little bit,” Bencic said.

“It’s amazing, when I was a little girl, I was watching them on TV. I never thought I’d get a chance to play them.”

Williams’ exit followed U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens’ 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2 loss to Zhang Shuai.

No. 13-seeded Stephens was serving for the match in the 10th game of the second set but dropped her serve. She was outplayed in the tiebreaker and in the third set.

It always shaped as a tough opener for Stephens, who hasn’t won a tour-level match since her Grand Slam breakthrough triumph at the U.S. Open last year and facing a player ranked No. 34, two spots off being seeded for the first major of the season.

Stephens didn’t play last year’s Australian Open because of a left foot injury that kept her out of action until Wimbledon. Since beating Madison Keys in the U.S. Open final, Stephens has lost eight matches.

“Sloane she plays so well, won the U.S. Open – everyone knows – she’s a great player,” Zhang said. “I know how hard I’m working … coming to Australia I’m ready for every match, every player. That’s why I won today.”

French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko made a positive start with a 6-1, 6-4 win over 37-year-old Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 French Open winner.

Ostapenko saved two break points in the third game of the opening set and clinched the set with an ace. After an exchange of service breaks in the second, Ostapenko got the decisive break in the ninth game, then served out the match after double-faulting on her first match point.

Three other Americans went out in earlier matches, with 10th-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe losing to Timea Babos 7-6 (4), 6-2, 12th-seeded Julia Goerges extended her winning streak to 15 matches with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Sofia Kenin, and No. 19 Magdalena Rybarikova beating Taylor Townsend 6-0, 7-5.

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

Tennis star Bouchard testifies about slip, fall at US Open

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NEW YORK (AP) Tennis star Eugenie Bouchard has taken the witness stand at a New York City trial to accuse the United States Tennis Association of negligence that led to her slipping on a locker room floor and hurting her head.

Bouchard testified Wednesday a wet floor caused her to slip and fall inside a locker room at the 2015 U.S. Open.

Her lawsuit contends the USTA should have done more to warn her the area had just been cleaned. The defense says she shouldn’t have entered without being accompanied by tournament personnel.

The lawsuit says the fall left Bouchard with a concussion and “serious head injury.”

Bouchard says she was forced to withdraw from the U.S. Open and tournaments in China and Japan. She’s seeking unspecified damages.

The 23-year-old Canadian player is ranked 116th in the world.

Serena Williams champions issues on, off court

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Moments after Serena Williams won her seventh Wimbledon title, she proudly raised her fist in a black power salute.

It caused a bit of frenzy at the All-England Club in 2016, but Williams’ action shouldn’t have surprised anyone: She’d already been one of the most vocal supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. She was one of the first major athletes to decry the failure to indict a white officer in the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – while also condemning violence against police.

“What caused me to speak out? Just life,” Williams said. “That’s just who I am. I always believe in the greater good and doing what’s right.”

Williams isn’t alone in her activism. Female athletes – especially black women – have long been out there pushing for social change. Wilma Rudolph’s victory parade celebrating her three gold medals from the 1960 Olympics in Rome was the first integrated event in Clarksville, Tennessee.

But despite their efforts on the field and off, women athletes have to struggle to get the same attention as men despite having as much to say, said Harry Edwards, a scholar of race and sports who has worked as a consultant for several U.S. pro teams.

“We have this twisted, almost-demented obsession with women’s second-class status with their physical inferiority,” he said. “It prevents us from appreciating the great athletes that they are … but it also means that it shuts down a potential forum that these great athletes would have where they’re valued for their athletic prowess in the same way that Muhammad Ali was, that Bill Russell was, that Tommy Smith and John Carlos were, that Arthur Ashe was, that Curt Flood was, so that when they speak, people listen.”

While Williams has long been an advocate of Black Lives Matter, it was only after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the 2016 season that the country really began to pay attention to black athlete activism. Kaepernick added his voice to a growing national movement, enveloping the entire league and starting an ongoing conversation that ventured outside football arenas.

Similarly, few people acknowledge that after the 2016 deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the killing of Dallas police officers, dozens of WNBA players wore shirts with the men’s names and kneeled for the national anthem.

It was a black woman, Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith, who started the wave of athletic protest about the deaths of black men at the hands of police.

On Nov. 29, 2014, Smith made the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during the national anthem before a game at Fontbonne University in Clayton, Missouri, before walking toward the American flag and laying prone on the floor for 4 1/2 minutes to symbolize the 4 + hours Brown lay in the streets of nearby Ferguson.

“We as black women are often invisible, so we don’t get that credit,” said Akilah Francique, a former athlete who cofounded the Sista to Sista program to foster a sense of connectedness among black female collegiate athletes.

Williams has been a presence on and off the tennis court, not shying away from opponents en route to winning 23 Grand Slam titles or social and political issues.

She spoke up in 2015, encouraging Black Lives Matter activists not to get discouraged: “To those of you involved in equality movements like Black Lives Matter, I say this: Keep it up. Don’t let those trolls stop you. We’ve been through so much for so many centuries, and we shall overcome this too,” she wrote in Wired magazine.

Since then, Williams has become the symbol for other causes affecting people of color, including medical issues. In February, she told Vogue that she dealt with a medical scare after the birth of her daughter. She had to insist on getting extra medical tests, overruling her nurse, before her doctors discovered several small blood clots in her lungs.

Women around the country related to her story, talking about similar difficulties in getting proper medical attention.

Female-led activism can also look different than men’s, Francique said, because of the unique positions and pressures women face in sports and in life. She pointed to the criticism black women athletes have to overcome about their body shapes, training regimens, skin color, clothing and even hair when they compete in sports – criticism that Williams has endured.

“For many of them just by merely being there and having a presence is activism,” Francique said.

Williams’ older sister, Venus, who has advocated for equal pay for professional tennis while winning seven Grand Slam titles, believes it is important to have a voice on these issues.

“I think more than anything, we see ourselves as Americans, and that’s what we want to be able to see ourselves as, regardless of color,” said Venus Williams. “I think that’s what everyone is fighting for, that one day we don’t have to see that anymore.”