Venus Williams, US champion Stephens out in 1st round

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) In her first match at the Australian Open since a Williams sister was guaranteed to win the title, Venus Williams lost in the first round to Belinda Bencic and ensured it cannot happen in 2018.

Venus lost last year’s final at Melbourne Park to younger sibling Serena, who clinched an Open era-record 23rd major but hasn’t played a Grand Slam tournament since because of her pregnancy and the birth of her first child.

The 6-3, 7-5 loss for Venus Williams was her first in five career meeting with Bencic, who lost to Serena Williams in the first round here last year.

The 20-year-old Bencic saved five break points in the eighth game before a rain delay caused an almost half-hour suspension of play as the roof was closed on Rod Laver Arena. She returned on a roll, winning the next six points to hold serve and then clinch the set.

Bencic teamed up with Roger Federer to win the Hopman Cup for Switzerland in the first week of the season, and had the 19-time major winner’s parents in the crowd supporting her on Monday.

It must have helped, having overcome the surprise when the draw was made that she’d have to play another Williams in the first round.

“Honestly, the first reaction of everyone was `Oh, bad luck.’ But of course, it would be nice to play somebody easier first round and get your rhythm a little bit,” Bencic said.

“It’s amazing, when I was a little girl, I was watching them on TV. I never thought I’d get a chance to play them.”

Williams’ exit followed U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens’ 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2 loss to Zhang Shuai.

No. 13-seeded Stephens was serving for the match in the 10th game of the second set but dropped her serve. She was outplayed in the tiebreaker and in the third set.

It always shaped as a tough opener for Stephens, who hasn’t won a tour-level match since her Grand Slam breakthrough triumph at the U.S. Open last year and facing a player ranked No. 34, two spots off being seeded for the first major of the season.

Stephens didn’t play last year’s Australian Open because of a left foot injury that kept her out of action until Wimbledon. Since beating Madison Keys in the U.S. Open final, Stephens has lost eight matches.

“Sloane she plays so well, won the U.S. Open – everyone knows – she’s a great player,” Zhang said. “I know how hard I’m working … coming to Australia I’m ready for every match, every player. That’s why I won today.”

French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko made a positive start with a 6-1, 6-4 win over 37-year-old Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 French Open winner.

Ostapenko saved two break points in the third game of the opening set and clinched the set with an ace. After an exchange of service breaks in the second, Ostapenko got the decisive break in the ninth game, then served out the match after double-faulting on her first match point.

Three other Americans went out in earlier matches, with 10th-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe losing to Timea Babos 7-6 (4), 6-2, 12th-seeded Julia Goerges extended her winning streak to 15 matches with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Sofia Kenin, and No. 19 Magdalena Rybarikova beating Taylor Townsend 6-0, 7-5.

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Novak Djokovic to start 2023 in Adelaide ahead of Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic will open his 2023 campaign in Adelaide as he prepares for a shot at a 10th Australian Open crown a year after having his visa revoked on the eve of his title defense.

The 21-time major winner has been granted a visa by the Australian government and has been listed to play at the Adelaide International, which starts Jan. 1.

Serbia isn’t contesting the inaugural United Cup team competition, leaving Djokovic free to play regular warmup tournaments head of the Jan. 16-29 Australian Open.

He’ll be joined in the men’s draw at Adelaide by Russians Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada and Andy Murray.

Ons Jabeur, Aryna Sabalenka will headline the women’s draw.

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles last month confirmed Djokovic had been granted a visa to compete in Australia in January. The 35-year-old Serbian had been facing a possible three-year ban after being deported last January over his stance against COVID-19 vaccination.

Djokovic has won the Australian Open a record nine times, including the last three times he played. Rafael Nadal won this year’s title in Djokovic’s absence.

Djokovic was not vaccinated against COVID-19 when he arrived in Melbourne ahead of the 2022 tournament, but Australia has since lifted strict rules for unvaccinated travelers.

Karolina Pliskova reuniting with Sascha Bajin

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Two-time Grand Slam finalist Karolina Pliskova is reuniting with coach Sascha Bajin ahead of the 2023 season.

Pliskova posted on her website and her Twitter account about the move, which comes about six months after she and Bajin stopped working together. The pair originally teamed up in November 2020.

While Bajin was her coach, Pliskova reached the final at Wimbledon in 2021 before losing to champion Ash Barty. Pliskova also was the runner-up at the 2016 U.S. Open, where she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals before being beat by Angelique Kerber for the trophy.

After splitting from Bajin in July, Pliskova was coached by Leos Friedl. Their results together included a quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open.

Bajin has worked as a coach or hitting partner with several top tennis players, including Grand Slam title winners Williams, Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki.

“Thank you for having me back,” Bajin wrote on Twitter. “Let’s go get it.”

Pliskova is a 30-year-old from the Czech Republic who reached No. 1 in the WTA rankings in 2017 and finished this season at No. 31 after going 21-21 with no titles.

Her team also includes fitness specialist Jez Green and physiotherapist Martin Salvador.

Next year’s first Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open, begins Jan. 16.