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Frances Tiafoe among young Americans coming of age in Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) More than 13 years after Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open, the last time an American man triumphed at a Grand Slam, the future of U.S. men’s tennis appears bright.

The next generation of young players, all aged between 18 and 20, is starting to emerge and showing enough promise at this year’s Australian Open to suggest they may be on the cusp of a breakthrough.

Seven made the main draw at Melbourne Park and three were still in contention after the first round.

Frances Tiafoe, who turns 19 on Friday, defeated Mikhail Kukushkin 6-1, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-2 on Tuesday, while 20-year-old Ernesto Escobedo beat Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-1. They joined 20-year-old Noah Rubin, who won his opener a day earlier to set up a second-round match against Roger Federer.

The others failed to advance, but not before serving notice to the tour’s old guard.

Reilly Opelka, 19, lost a tight five-setter to 11th-seeded David Goffin, while Jared Donaldson, 20, lost to Brazil’s Rogerio Dutra Silva after leading two sets to none. Taylor Fritz and Michael Mmoh, both 19, each put up good fights in defeats to veterans Gilles Muller and Gilles Simon, respectively.

“We’re all really supportive of each other and happy to see all of us doing so well,” Tiafoe said. “Hopefully we can keep going and not stop now.”

Much has been expected of Tiafoe, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, since he won the Orange Bowl at age 15, the youngest champion in the prestigious 18-and-under tournament’s history.

Tiafoe just missed out on a career-defining win at last year’s U.S. Open, where as a wild card, he led the long-time top-ranked U.S. player, John Isner, by two sets to none before the match slipped away. It was a heartbreaking loss, but one Tiafoe learned from.

“I was like, the next opportunity I’m definitely going to take it,” he said after his first-round win on Tuesday, flashing a wide grin. “Now, getting through relatively comfortable today means a lot. … I really feel like I belong now.”

He next plays another 19-year-old, his close friend, Alexander Zverev of Germany.

Both Opelka and Donaldson, meanwhile, got their own tastes of Grand Slam agony in Melbourne.

Opelka, a 6-foot-11 (2.11 meter) former Wimbledon junior champion with a booming serve and whip-like forehand, had two break points to go up 4-2 in the fifth set against Goffin, but couldn’t convert either and ultimately lost 6-4, 4-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.

Opelka had never before played a five-set match and was making his debut in the singles main draw of a Grand Slam. Yet he showed grit – and no hint of nerves – deep into the fifth set against a seasoned pro like Goffin, even as he started to cramp and struggled to move.

“I’ve played some guys in the top 10 before so I wasn’t uncomfortable,” he said. “With the way I play, hopefully it really shouldn’t matter who’s on the other side of the net.”

Donaldson’s loss was less expected. The Rhode Island native made a stunning run to the third round of last year’s U.S. Open, upsetting the 12th-seeded Goffin and Viktor Troicki, a former top-20 player.

And he was well on his way to a commanding win over Dutra Silva before the Brazilian stormed back for a 3-6, 0-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 victory.

“Losses like this really define your character,” he said. “So I can be upset and sulk about it or I can get back on the practice court and keep working hard and get better so matches like that don’t happen again.”

Rafael Nadal will play in new Davis Cup format

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MADRID — Gerard Pique is not worried about the possible absence of some top players in the revamped Davis Cup, especially since Rafael Nadal has said he will play in the new-look competition when it debuts next year.

The Barcelona defender, who spearheads the company behind the new format of the Davis Cup, said Wednesday that Nadal has told him he will play as long as he is not injured.

“If the No. 1 in the world is playing, that’s more than enough,” Pique said in the official presentation of Madrid as host of the Davis Cup finals for the next two years. “Rafa is very positive about this event, especially because it is taking place in Madrid.”

The new event was developed in a partnership between the International Tennis Federation and the investment group Kosmos, which was founded by the Barcelona and Spain player.

Pique said he knows it will not be easy to have all top-ranked players participating.

“This is a team event, so it’s impossible to have all the top players involved. Some teams won’t qualify, not everybody will be able to play anyway,” Pique said. “Of course we would like to have the top players, but we want to focus on the teams.”

Stars such as Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have already hinted they don’t intend to play. Djokovic said the tournament could be competing with the ATP’s World Team Cup, while Federer said the revamped Davis Cup didn’t seem to be designed for him.

Pique said he already didn’t expect Federer to be playing, noting the Swiss veteran has limited his tournament schedule in recent years and might not “have the legs” to play in the Davis Cup again. He said he still hoped to convince Djokovic, though.

“I have a lot of confidence that we can negotiate and the top players will play,” Pique said.

The new format of tennis’ top team event will be a season-ending, 18-team tournament, but teams will still play matches in February to advance to the championship in November. The Davis Cup has previously been played over four weekends throughout the year.

The first championship will be held next year from Nov. 18-24 on an indoor hardcourt at the Magic Box arena, which already hosts the Madrid Masters. The ITF said players will compete for prize money that will rival what is offered in Grand Slams.

Pique said there is no “perfect date” for the tournament as the tennis calendar is very tight, but he was happy with the week they picked.

“We’ve spoken with everybody,” he said. “We think this is a week that won’t affect any of the other tournaments. We want to be well seen in the tennis world. We are here to help. We think this will be a magical week for the world of tennis.”

The 2018 Davis Cup semifinalists – Croatia, France, Spain and the United States – have already secured their spot in next year’s tournament, along with Argentina and Britain.

Defending champion France will host Croatia in the last Davis Cup final in the current format from Nov. 23-25 in Lille.

Stephens, Pliskova both lose at Kremlin Cup

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MOSCOW — Sloane Stephens and Karolina Pliskova were both eliminated from the Kremlin Cup on Wednesday, with the latter result ensuring that Elina Svitolina has qualified for the WTA Finals.

The fifth-ranked Pliskova lost to Russian veteran Vera Zvonareva 6-1, 6-2, holding serve only once in the match.

Because of the loss, Svitolina will play in the season-ending WTA Finals in Singapore. Pliskova can still qualify, but she could also be overtaken by Kiki Bertens.

The 34-year-old Zvonareva, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open finalist, will next face Anastasija Sevastova in the quarterfinals. The Latvian beat Yulia Putintseva 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.

Stephens lost to Tunisian qualifier Ons Jabeur 6-3, 6-2. The third-seeded American, who had a first-round bye, lost her opening service games in each set.

Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, secured qualification for the WTA Finals last week after a strong season which included reaching the French Open final.

Jabeur will next face Anett Kontaveit in the quarterfinals. The eighth-seeded Estonian beat Kristina Mladenovic 6-2, 7-6 (3).

In the men’s draw, Ricardas Berankis beat Aljaz Bedene 3-6, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5) to reach the quarterfinals.