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Stephens provides boost for US in Fed Cup final at Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus — Sloane Stephens is back on the United States team for the Fed Cup final, and Victoria Azarenka is missing for Belarus.

That alone gives the early advantage to the Americans.

Stephens, who won the U.S. Open this year for her first major title, missed the opening two rounds of the international team competition because of a foot injury. But she is back and will be playing alongside CoCo Vandeweghe, Shelby Rogers and Alison Riske in the best-of-five series this weekend in Minsk.

“I’m happy to be back playing and happy the team made the finals,” the 13th-ranked Stephens said Wednesday. “It’s awesome I can be on this team.”

The United States is looking to win the Fed Cup for the first time in 17 years, while Belarus is playing in the final for the first time.

Stephens hasn’t played in the Fed Cup since the 2016 quarterfinals, but she said it’s been “no problem at all” slipping back onto the squad.

“Obviously, I’ve known these girls since I was 12-13 years old, so we’re all really good friends,” Stephens said. “It’s easy to be with girls you like, girls you have fun with and girls you’ve been around for a really long time.”

Stephens didn’t play from the 2016 Olympics through Wimbledon in 2017 and underwent foot surgery during that period. She arrived in Minsk after not winning any of the four matches she’s played since her surprise U.S. Open victory. She retired with a knee injury from her last match against Barbora Strycova in China last week.

Vandeweghe, in her first week at a career-high No. 10 ranking, won two Fed Cup singles points against Germany in the quarterfinals, and two singles and the doubles points against the Czech Republic in the semifinals.

But the U.S. Open semifinalist said she knows very little about this weekend’s competition, having never played Aryna Sabalenka, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Vera Lapko or Lidziya Marozava.

“I feel like I’m coming in with wool over my eyes a little bit,” Vandeweghe said.

Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, is not playing in the final because of an ongoing custody dispute with the father of her infant son.

If U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi wins the title, she would be the first female to do so since Billie Jean King led the Americans to the last of their record 17 titles in 2000.

“It would be a great honor to be named as another female (champion) captain alongside Billie Jean,” said Rinaldi, who is in her first year as captain. “I spoke to Billie Jean before I came over. She had some very inspiring words for me.”

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.