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Rusty Nadal struggles in loss to Gasquet in exhibition match

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Rafael Nadal struggled with his timing and normally potent shot-making as he started his delayed preparations for the Australian Open with an error-filled 6-4, 7-5 loss to Richard Gasquet in the Kooyong Classic exhibition event Tuesday.

Nadal’s readiness for the first Grand Slam of the year had been in doubt after the top-ranked Spaniard pulled out of an exhibition in Abu Dhabi and a tournament in Brisbane to start the season, citing his lack of preparation following an injury layoff at the end of 2017.

Nadal didn’t appear to be hindered by the lingering right knee injury that forced him to withdraw from the ATP Finals in November, but his uneven performance will likely lead to other questions about his match form heading into the Australian Open next week.

“It was a long year last year, so I had to start the preparation (for this season) a little bit later than usual. But here I arrive in plenty of time and it’s a good day to start feeling again … of playing a match,” Nadal said in an on-court interview following the match.

“It’s still a good test for me and a good practice and that’s the most important thing.”

He downplayed any concerns about his knee, saying, “If I’m not feeling good, probably I will not be here. So that’s the good news.”

Nadal had particular trouble with his forehand on Tuesday, repeatedly misfiring into the net or spraying his shots several feet beyond the baseline.

After Gasquet broke Nadal twice to take a 3-0 lead in the second set, however, the Spaniard suddenly began hitting the lines and playing with his usual intensity, fighting back to level the match at 3-all.

His concentration then appeared to dip again as he made several more unforced errors to drop serve to go down 6-5. Gasquet, who has never beaten Nadal in 15 competitive matches on the ATP Tour, then served out the match.

The Australian Open has already been hit by the withdrawal of three-time major winner Andy Murray, who has been sidelined by a hip injury since Wimbledon last year and underwent surgery on Monday in Melbourne after pulling out of the tournament.

Japanese star Kei Nishikori has also withdrawn with a wrist injury and Serena Williams pulled out after saying she wasn’t ready to defend her title following the birth of her daughter in September.

Novak Djokovic is also working his way back into top shape after sitting out the second half of 2017 with an elbow injury. He also withdrew from the Abu Dhabi exhibition event and Qatar Open at the start of the season, but was a late entry to the Kooyong Classic. He plays his first match since Wimbledon against No. 5 Dominic Thiem on Wednesday.

Nadal, who enjoyed a resurgent 2017 after losing in last year’s Australian Open final to Roger Federer, said despite the rustiness at Kooyong, he still believes he’ll be ready to compete at Melbourne Park next week.

“My idea is just to keep practicing hard the next couple of days to be ready for the beginning of the Australian Open,” he said.

Djokovic lines up Dimitrov at Queen’s Club

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LONDON — Novak Djokovic’s first appearance at Queen’s Club in eight years was successful when he put away Australian qualifier John Millman 6-2, 6-1 on Tuesday.

Djokovic, entered as a wild card, will play second-seeded Grigor Dimitrov in the second round.

Also, Milos Raonic, runner-up to Roger Federer last week in Stuttgart, won his opener when Indian qualifier Yuki Bhambri retired hurt while trailing 6-1, 3-1.

Djokovic’s comeback from right elbow surgery in January has been gathering pace after reaching the Rome semifinals and French Open quarterfinals. He leads Dimitrov 6-1 in career matchups.

Dimitrov, the 2014 Queen’s champion, struggled past Damir Dzumhur 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3. Dimitrov saved six of eight break points.

Svitolina’s top ambitions survive grass-court struggle

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BIRMINGHAM, England — Elena Svitolina, who came within two wins of becoming world No. 1 in January, maintained her ambitious momentum to reach the top by surviving a tricky start to her Wimbledon build-up on Tuesday.

The second-seeded Svitolina stumbled within sight of a two-set victory, and briefly faltered again in the last set before beating Donna Vekic of Croatia 6-1, 3-6, 6-1.

Svitolina showed glimpses of the tenacious movement and consistently ferocious drives which have earned her the best win-loss record on the WTA tour since the beginning of last year, but also revealed glimpses of insecurity on the lush, low-bouncing surface.

Despite carving a lead of a set and 3-1, her gradually increasing attempts to win points in the forecourt were of variable quality, while Vekic, a former runner-up here, began to contain and counterattack more effectively.

Svitolina nearly let slip another lead of 3-1, in the last set, needing to save two break points on her next service game – one with a fine serve, and the other with a net attack finished off at the third attempt.

Eventually, the Ukrainian’s determination to adapt tactically to a surface on which she has yet to progress beyond any quarterfinal paid timely dividends, and she accelerated toward the finishing line at a canter.

“I was just trying to play well and to dominate, but she played a couple of great points to break back – which is always nice to have,” said Svitolina, apparently meaning she was pleased to gain extra practice on such a technique-testing surface.

“It was difficult for me because she hit the ball very flat and the first match on grass is always a challenge.”

She next faces Alize Cornet of France, who notably beat Serena Williams at 2014 Wimbledon, and who outlasted former top-10 player Ekaterina Makarova of Russia, by 5-7, 6-4, 6-1.