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Healthy del Potro looks to lead Argentina to first Davis Cup title

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ZAGREB, Croatia — Leaving behind two injury-hit years, Juan Martin del Potro is looking to cap his successful comeback by leading Argentina to its first Davis Cup title.

The 2009 U.S. Open champion said host Croatia is the favorite in the best-of-five series, but believes Argentina is in a strong position after losing in four Davis Cup finals since 1981.

“Croatia has a very strong team, but we are looking forward to a very good weekend,” Del Potro said. “They are playing at home on a favorite (fast indoor) surface. But, I also like fast surfaces.”

Federico Delbonis will start Argentina’s quest for the title by playing Friday’s opening singles match against Marin Cilic. Thursday’s draw also pits del Potro against big-serving Ivo Karlovic, who returned to Croatia’s team after a four-year absence.

In the doubles, the Croatian pair of Ivan Dodig and Franko Skugor will face Leonardo Mayer and Gaudio Pella. Reverse singles are scheduled for Sunday.

“If I win, it will be a bit less pressure on Ivo and a bit more pressure on Delpo,” Cilic said. “I’m feeling quite positive.”

Argentina is the only nation in the Davis Cup’s 116-year history which has reached four finals without winning the title. Croatia, targeting its second Davis Cup title after beating Slovakia in the final in 2005, will be led by an in-form Cilic, who has reached a career-best year-end ranking of No. 6.

“We are hoping that this long quest for the cup title will come to an end,” del Potro said. “This is a very different team we have since the last finals, new players, new team captain (Daniel Orsanic). Hopefully, a different result as well.”

The 37-year-old Karlovic will be the oldest player in the Davis Cup final in nearly a century. The towering Croat said he hopes to have short points and many aces in the match against del Potro.

“I will try to evade long exchanges, he is better in long points,” Karlovic said. “More aces I serve, less able Delpo will be able to win.”

Croatia team captain Zeljko Krajan had to make a last minute change to his roster, leaving youngster Borna Coric out because of his recent knee surgery. Coric was replaced by doubles specialist Skugor.

“It was a very tough decision,” Krajan said. “Unfortunately, he is not fully fit to play long matches.”

Rival players support seeding Serena Williams at French Open

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ROME – Several of Serena Williams’ biggest rivals believe that the 23-time Grand Slam champion deserves more than just a guaranteed spot in the French Open draw.

Williams, who is expected to play in her first major since returning from maternity leave, should also receive a top seed that befits the No. 1 ranking she held when she left the tour, the players say.

The WTA Tour said it is considering a rule change to add protected seeding for highly-ranked players returning from maternity leave but the earliest that could take effect is next year.

“I would like to see that change,” Maria Sharapova said. “It’s such an incredible effort for a woman to come back from physically, emotionally. … There’s just another whole dimension to the travel, to the experiences, to the emotions to the physicality of every single day.

“Tennis is such a selfish sport but I think when there’s a child in your life you lose a little bit of that, because there’s something that’s so much more important,” added Sharapova, who has lost three Grand Slam finals to Williams. “So yeah, I definitely think that would be a nice change.”

The French Open draw will be made Thursday, with the tournament starting on Sunday.

All Grand Slam events make their own decisions on seeding players, so it’s still possible that Roland Garros will make Williams one of the 32 seeded players even though her current ranking is down to near No. 500.

Otherwise, Williams could be forced to play top-ranked players in the early rounds.

The French tennis federation did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s normal to give birth to a kid. It’s normal to have protected ranking. … It’s more than tennis,” top-ranked Simona Halep said. “So the people will decide what seed she will get. But in my opinion it’s good to protect the ranking when someone is giving birth.”

Williams returned to the tour briefly this year, after a 14-month absence to give birth to her daughter. She was not seeded at tournaments in Indian Wells, California, and Miami, and compiled two wins and two losses.

Williams has recounted the difficulties she faced in childbirth and a pulmonary embolism that made it hard for her to breathe shortly after her daughter was born. But after a period of training, coach Patrick Mouratoglou last week told the WTA tour’s website “Serena will play the French Open to win it.”

Current rules covering maternity leave and injuries allow a protected or “special” ranking to be utilized for entry into tournaments but not for seeding purposes regardless of the reason for a player’s absence.

However, this past year the WTA adjusted the rule so that absences for maternity leave are treated the same as those for injury and illness by providing all players a two-year window to begin using a special ranking, plus an additional year from the date of return to utilize the special ranking.

“Historically, WTA players have not been supportive of the use of special rankings for seeding purposes,” the WTA said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The rule is currently under further review as part of our 2019 rules process. We remain committed to evolving with the needs of our players and are very supportive of those players returning from maternity leave to the tour.”

Fourth-ranked Elina Svitolina, who defended her Italian Open title on Sunday, was also supportive of seeding Williams.

“If you’re like finished or you stopped because you’re going to have a child and you will be in top eight, I think you should have this kind of thing, to have protected seeding,” Svitolina said. “She was No. 1 so she deserves seeding.”

William has won the French Open three times – more than any current player – and last year’s Roland Garros champion, Jelena Ostapenko, is looking forward to her return.

“She’s someone who the tour was missing – because she’s a great champion,” Ostapenko said. “She was my idol since I was growing up.”

AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington and AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed.

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Nadal beats Zverev for Italian Open title

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ROME — Rafael Nadal came out on top in a matchup of this year’s top two clay-court players, beating defending champion Alexander Zverev 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 Sunday to win a record-extending eighth Italian Open title.

Nadal recovered from an early break in the third set after a 50-minute rain delay.

The victory means Nadal will reclaim the No. 1 ranking from Roger Federer on Monday.

Federer is sitting out the clay season to prepare for Wimbledon.

Nadal and Zverev had each won two titles on clay this season entering the final, with Nadal lifting trophies in Monte Carlo and Barcelona and Zverev taking Munich and Madrid.

Nadal improved to 5-0 in his career against Zverev and gained an extra measure of confidence entering the French Open, which starts next Sunday.

Earlier, Elina Svitolina defended the women’s title, facing little resistance from top-ranked Simona Halep in a 6-0, 6-4 win.