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Pursuing a record 23rd major title, Serena Williams opens with win

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) For five games in the second set, Serena Williams played almost flawless tennis in her first-round match at the Australian Open.

Then came the rustiness that tends to follow a lengthy layoff, giving Belinda Bencic a glimmer of hope, before Williams regained her composure to win 6-4, 6-3 on Tuesday. The six-time Australian Open champion improved her impressive record in the first round of Grand Slam tournaments to 65-1.

The No. 2-ranked Williams’ priority here is an Open era record 23rd major title. She’s has taken the first step, beating a player who was seeded 12th here last year and reached a career-high No. 7 ranking.

“She was just recently in the top 10. I knew it would be one of the toughest first-round matches I’ve ever played,” the newly engaged Williams said.

In round two she’ll meet Lucie Safarova, who beat Yanina Wickmayer 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-1.

Bencic got one service break in the first set, but only took two points in the first three games on Williams’ serve in the second.

Serving for the match at 6-4, 5-1, things changed for Williams. She finished her 2016 after the U.S. Open, resting injuries, and started 2017 with an error-prone loss in New Zealand.

Williams served only her second double-fault of the match to give Bencic a break-point chance, and the Swiss teenager converted it with a crosscourt winning forehand.

Bencic held at love to close the gap, but then faced a match point.

Williams double-faulted again on her first match point, but made no mistake on her second. She finished with 30 winners and 30 unforced errors, eight errors and four double-faults.

Karolina Pliskova and Johanna Konta both made their Grand Slam breakthroughs last year, both prepared for the season’s first major with title runs in Australia and both advanced with straight sets wins.

U.S. Open finalist Pliskova following her title win at the Brisbane International with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Sara Sorribes Tormo.

“I feel good on the court, especially when I win my first title in the first week of the year,” said Pliskova, who beat Serena Williams in the U.S. Open semifinals before losing to Angelique Kerber. “So I’m ready for the tournament.”

Konta, who won the Sydney International title last week, had a 7-5, 6-2 win over Kirsten Flipkens.

“I definitely love playing here. It’s a dream,” Konta said. “A lot has happened in the last year, but I’m just enjoying playing and getting better each day.”

Ninth-seeded Konta was a surprise semifinalist in her debut at the Australian Open last year, starting with a first-round win over Venus Williams and sparking a strong 2016 season which ended with her in the top 10.

Also advancing were No. 21 Caroline Garcia, No. 30 Ekaterina Makarova and Naomi Osaka of Japan beat Thai wild-card entry Luksika Kumkhum 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-5.

Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic got his campaign started with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over Dustin Brown. The No. 3-seeded Raonic reached the semifinals here last year in his best run so far at Melbourne Park.

No. 24 Alexander Zverev held off Robin Haase 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2, No. 25 Gilles Simon beat U.S. wild-card entry Michael Mmoh 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 and No. 32 Philipp Kohlschreiber advanced.

Sevastova beats Zvonareva in 3 sets at Kremlin Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) Anastasija Sevastova reached the semifinals of the Kremlin Cup by beating Russian veteran Vera Zvonareva 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 on Thursday.

Sevastova, a U.S. Open semifinalist, will next face Tunisian qualifier Ons Jabeur, who upset eighth-seeded Anett Kontaveit 7-5, 6-1.

Jabeur has won six straight matches, including qualifiers. She has never before reached the semifinals on tour.

Nick Kyrgios withdrew from the men’s tournament with what organizers said was an elbow injury, giving Mirza Basic a walkover to the quarterfinals.

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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.