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Nadal wary of saying he’s fully recovered from thigh injury

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MONACO (AP) Rafael Nadal is wary of saying he’s fully recovered from a troublesome right thigh injury as he defends his Monte Carlo Masters title.

The top-ranked Spaniard only recently returned to action at the Davis Cup, after a recurrence of the injury forced him out of the Mexico Open and then Masters tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami last month.

Those setbacks followed his crushing disappointment at the Australian Open, where he was forced to retire in the fifth set of the quarterfinal against Marin Cilic.

Nadal had expected to make his comeback in Acapulco, but the injury flared up again during a last practice session with French player Adrian Mannarino. Looking back on it Sunday, the 16-time Grand Slam champion said it was mentally “even harder than what happened in Australia” because he was so convinced he would play.

“I did all the things the right way, practicing one week before, to be ready for the tournament and then it happened,” Nadal told reporters. “You’re in Acapulco, you fly all the way … Then the doctors told me: `You will not be able to play in Indian Wells, Miami.’ So that was hard to accept.”

So was the painstakingly dull recovery which followed.

“I was unable to do any physical work because the psoas (muscle) was affecting all the movements I could do,” he said. “It was a boring time because I don’t like to be doing nothing.”

Nadal wasn’t bored last weekend, however, winning both his Davis Cup singles against Germany without dropping a set. Although he appears to have slotted straight back into his clay groove, his Acapulco setback leaves him circumspect about speaking too soon.

“Well it happened twice, so you never know,” he said. “Of course it stays a little bit in your mind.”

Nadal begins his bid for a record-extending 11th Monte Carlo title with a second-round match against either Aljaz Bedene or Mirza Basic. He needs to win the tournament or Roger Federer will reclaim top ranking in their seemingly endless fight for supremacy. They have won the last five Grand Slams, three for Federer

But with 20-time major winner Federer again skipping the clay season, Nadal must wait a while longer to try and avenge a run of five straight defeats to the Swiss star.

He took a swipe, although an amiable one, at Federer.

“He says he will love to play against me again in best of five sets on clay, and I thought he would play Roland Garros,” Nadal said, with a wry smile. “A few days later he says he will not play in one (clay) event, so there’s a little bit of controversy with that.”

Nadal’s victory at Monte Carlo last year made him the first men’s tennis player in the Open era to win the same title 10 times. He then won a 10th French Open.

He feels at home at the picture-postcard tournament with its center court perched over the glittering Mediterranean sea. The Monte Carlo tournament launched his career as a scraggly-haired 16-year-old in 2003, although the sun had long set when he beat defending French Open champion Albert Costa under floodlights in the second round.

“I always feel good when I am here,” Nadal said. “It’s been a love story.”

The only Monte Carlo final that the 31-year-old Nadal has lost was to Novak Djokovic in 2013. Djokovic added another Monte Carlo title in 2015, during his pomp.

But the former top-ranked Serb looks a shadow of the player he was. Hindered by a persistent right elbow injury, his ranking has tumbled to 13.

Earlier this month, Djokovic stopped working with Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek – the latest in a series of coaching changes for the 12-time major champion.

After significant rest during the second half of last year and a medical procedure in February, Djokovic spoke confidently of being pain-free – at long last.

Then, he lost his first match at the Miami Open in straight sets.

Djokovic used to be the player everyone was chasing. He even beat Nadal during a glorious run of seven straight finals and holds a 26-24 winning record against him.

They have won a record 30 Masters each, but Nadal looks the more likely to get No. 31.

Keys sends U.S. into second straight Fed Cup final

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AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — Defending champion United States will play in a second consecutive Fed Cup final after defeating France on Sunday.

Madison Keys secured the decisive point for the visiting team by beating Pauline Parmentier 7-6 (4), 6-4 in the second reverse singles. Keys’ victory gave the defending champions an unassailable 3-1 lead over France in their semifinal.

The 13th-ranked Keys, a late replacement for CoCo Vandeweghe, came back from a 4-1 deficit in the first set and made the decisive break in the ninth game of the second set with two consecutive winners.

“The girls did so well, both today and yesterday. We are very fortunate to have such a strong group and now we are looking forward to what is going to be a great final,” U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi said.

Parmentier fought hard until the end and saved two set points in the opener, but ultimately surrendered to Keys’ deep groundstrokes. The Frenchwoman had the chance to break back while trailing 5-4 in the second set but Keys used her big serve to win the next three points and seal the match.

The U.S. will play the Czech Republic in the final.

Earlier, Sloane Stephens had given a 2-1 lead to the U.S. with a 6-2, 6-0 thrashing of Kristina Mladenovic.

The U.S. Open champion delivered a ruthless display against the 20th-ranked Mladenovic and prevailed in 54 minutes. Stephens hit 16 winners and converted five of six break chances at the 6,700-capacity Arena Pays d’Aix on indoor clay.

“That was a really good one. You never anticipate a scoreline like the way it turned out but it was really solid,” Stephens said. She also won her first singles match on Saturday.

The Americans extended their winning record to 12-2 against the French.

The Czech Republic qualified for the final by defeating Germany 4-1 in Stuttgart.

Nadal beats Nishikori to win Monte Carlo Masters

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MONACO — Rafael Nadal won a record 31st Masters title after beating Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-2 in the Monte Carlo Masters final on Sunday.

Nadal also became the first man in the Open era to win the same title 11 times – 13 years after his first title here – and moved one ahead of rival Novak Djokovic for career Masters titles.

“It’s great to have this trophy in my hands again,” Nadal said.

It gave him a 76th title overall and ensured the Spaniard keeps his top ranking ahead of Roger Federer.

Nishikori was chasing a first Masters title, but the Japanese player took 11 minutes to hold for 1-1.

He got some brief hope, breaking Nadal with a superb passing shot at full stretch to lead 2-1, but meekly surrendered the next four games.

“I knew it was going to be tough even though I was up break,” said Nishikori, who complained of tiredness. “My legs were very heavy today, playing three sets (for) three days in a row (before the final). It wasn’t easy physically.”

The second set was a procession and Nadal won on his first match point with a stinging backhand winner.

Nadal’s celebration was brief and low key. He thrust both hands into the air, and then jogged over to offer Nishikori a sympathetic hug after beating him for the 10th time in 12 meetings.

Nishikori saved a set point with a sharp, angled volley at the net. But Nadal was in relentless mood and sealed it on his next chance with a crisp forehand winner.

“It’s not easy to describe when you are coming back from injury and you start the clay-court season in this way,” Nadal said.

Nishikori is still working his way back to form and full fitness, after missing the 2017 U.S. Open and this year’s Australian Open because of a torn tendon in his right wrist.

“It was a great week for me, I had an injury and couldn’t play for a long time,” said Nishikori, whose ranking has slipped to 36.

Nadal has not dropped a set in seven matches since coming back from a recurrence of a right hip injury that forced him to abandon during the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal against Marin Cilic.

The injury relapse subsequently forced him out of the Mexico Open and Masters tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami, but Nadal now looks back to his ruthless best on clay.

He has his sights firmly set on an 11th title at Barcelona next week and then an 11th French Open title at Roland Garros.