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Serena Williams loses in doubles, US advances in Fed Cup

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) The first step in Serena Williams’ comeback underscored how far she has to go after spending over a year away from the game.

In Williams’ first competition since giving birth five months ago, she and sister Venus lost 6-2, 6-3 to Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands in a Fed Cup doubles match Sunday.

“I honestly feel better than I thought I was going to feel,” she said.

The U.S. already had clinched a victory in the best-of-five event thanks to a pair of singles victories by Venus Williams, so this doubles loss merely narrowed the final score to 3-1. The U.S. advanced to a World Group semifinal April 21-22 at France, which defeated Belgium 3-2 this weekend.

The clincher came Sunday when Venus Williams won the final five games in a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Richel Hogenkamp. The U.S. had taken a 2-0 lead Saturday when Venus Williams beat Arantxa Rus 6-1, 6-4 and CoCo Vandeweghe rallied from a set and a break down to defeat Hogenkamp 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3.

“Obviously this is an important moment, when you’re playing not just for yourself but your other team members and your captain and your country,” Venus Williams said. “It’s definitely a different kind of pressure.”

But this event was most notable for the return of Serena Williams, who hadn’t played competitive tennis since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant for her 23rd career Grand Slam singles title, one off Margaret Court’s record. Her only match since had come in a Dec. 30 exhibition.

Serena Williams’ daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., was wearing a headband with red and white stripes plus a blue coat Sunday as her father, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, held her just behind the players’ bench.

“I didn’t manage my time well, but I was thinking about it in the future how to manage it better,” Serena Williams said. “This is literally my first time traveling with the baby and everything. I’m going to try to do better. It was hard. It was the first time for me.”

Williams had said Friday that this weekend would represent “the start of a long process” as she tries to work her way back. Her pregnancy had complications that made this comeback particularly challenging.

Williams had told Vogue magazine that she developed several small blood clots in her lungs after her daughter was born Sept. 1. The article said that she was unable to get out of bed for the first six weeks after giving birth.

Her doubles match revealed the effects of her long time away from the game. Williams said she hadn’t known what to expect Sunday and acknowledged she needs to improve in all aspects, but she added that “I feel like I’m on the right track.”

“I didn’t expect to have that much power on my serves, even though they didn’t go in,” she said. “It’s just a start. I feel like that’s a very good step in the right direction.”

Netherlands captain Paul Haarhuis said a few more matches should help Williams correct the mistakes she made Sunday.

“I think she’s going to be fine,” Haarhuis said. “She’s got the game, you know.”

Williams’ biggest challenge may be managing expectations as she attempts to work her way back into peak form while balancing tennis and motherhood.

Her goals remain as high as ever.

“I think if I walk out there with low expectations, then I need to stop doing what I do,” she said. “So that’s never going to happen for me. I’m always going to have the best and highest expectations for myself. I’m OK with that because that’s just who I am.”

Sunday’s scheduled singles match between Vandeweghe and Rus was scrapped because the outcome of this event already has been decided.

After Venus Williams’ singles victory Sunday, U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi said the Williams sisters would be playing doubles together. The schedule originally called for Serena Williams to play alongside Lauren Davis.

In other Fed Cup action this weekend, the Czech Republic beat Switzerland 3-1 and Germany beat Belarus 3-2. Germany will host the Czech Republic in the other semifinal.

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

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Nadal-Djokovic semifinal suspended after 3rd set

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LONDON (AP) It was the kind of tennis that Wimbledon’s Centre Court crowd would gladly have watched all night long.

The show being put on by Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal was so good it could have been an instant classic had they been able to finish their semifinal before the tournament’s 11 p.m. curfew.

Instead, the two players – and a disappointed audience – were sent home after the third set on Friday with Djokovic leading 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9) following a tense tiebreaker that had more entertaining rallies than some entire matches.

The two players didn’t even get onto the court until after 8 p.m. because of an earlier marathon semifinal won by Kevin Anderson and when Djokovic converted his second set point in the tiebreaker – having saved three of Nadal’s – the clock had ticked a couple of minutes past 11. That left organizers no choice but to call it a night, although the announcement from the chair umpire led to a scattering of boos from some fans who clearly wanted more.

Most of them will have to watch the rest on TV.

The match will resume at 1 p.m. local time on Saturday, before the women’s final between Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber. At stake is a place in Sunday’s men’s final against the man who was partly at fault for keeping Nadal and Djokovic out there so late. Anderson’s win over John Isner lasted 6 + hours and went to 26-24 in the fifth set.

Djokovic-Nadal had clearly been the headline act of the day – they have five Wimbledon titles between them and met in the 2011 final while Anderson and Isner had never made the semifinals before – and their tennis was at another level from the earlier match. Even Anderson said he could feel during his match that the crowd would rather be watching the next one.

“They’ve paid to see two matches, and they came pretty close to only seeing one match,” Anderson said. “I can feel the crowd (get) pretty antsy for us to get off the court. They’ve been watching us for over six hours.”

While Anderson-Isner was mostly a serving duel with a few longer rallies thrown in, Djokovic and Nadal repeatedly slugged it out from the baseline, chasing each other around the court and coming up with spectacular winners from every corner.

Many of the best points came in the tiebreaker, including a 23-shot rally that Nadal finished off with a forehand half-volley drop shot to set up his first set point.

It was one of three successful drop shots from the Spaniard in the tiebreaker alone, but Djokovic answered with one of his own to save the second set point at 7-6.

He eventually went up 10-9 with the help of a backhand passing shot and an errant shot into the net by Nadal brought the entertainment to an end – for now.

It led to the unusual situation of both players leaving the court to a huge ovation – and applauding the fans in return – but without there being a clear winner or loser.

To be continued.

Former No. 1 Kerber tops Ostapenko; into second Wimbledon final

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LONDON – It was clear right from the opening game of Angelique Kerber’s Wimbledon semifinal how things were going to go. She was not going to dictate or control much.

She was, instead, going to employ spectacular defense and solid, steady play, while letting her opponent, Jelena Ostapenko, be the one to determine the outcomes of nearly every point.

It worked. The 11th-seeded Kerber reached her second final at the All England Club by avoiding too many mistakes and using a seven-game run to seize control for a 6-3, 6-3 victory over the 12th-seeded Ostapenko on Thursday.

“These are the matches I was working for as a young kid,” Kerber said, “and to stand here again in the final at Wimbledon is great.”

Kerber is a former No. 1 and a two-time major champion, both coming in 2016 at the Australian Open and U.S. Open. That was also the year the German was the runner-up at Wimbledon, losing to Serena Williams in the title match.

She could find herself up against Williams yet again: The 36-year-old American was scheduled to face No. 13 Julia Goerges of Germany in Thursday’s second semifinal on Centre Court.

Williams took a 19-match Wimbledon winning streak into the day. She won the grass-court tournament the last two times she played it, in 2015 and 2016, before missing it last year while pregnant. Williams gave birth to a daughter in September.

The left-handed Kerber was mainly a passive participant in the early going against Ostapenko. That first game consisted of eight points: Three were unforced errors by Ostapenko, including a double-fault to begin the proceedings; the other five were winners by her, including a 100 mph ace to close the hold.

Five games in, Ostapenko led 3-2, and the numbers were still tilted toward her. She had 14 winners and 10 unforced errors, while Kerber had three winners and – this was key – zero unforced errors.

There were no drawn-out points in the early going, no lengthy baseline exchanges, essentially because Ostapenko wouldn’t allow it. The Latvian plays an aggressive brand of first-strike tennis that carried her to the 2017 French Open title as an unseeded 20-year-old.

Kerber, in contrast, bides her time, working the back of the court to get everything back over the net, often kneeling to get low enough to reach shots.

Eventually, Kerber’s style ruled the day. She went on a half-hour run in which she took the last four games of the first set and took a 3-0 lead in the second. Ostapenko’s strokes were missing and she grew increasingly frustrated, slapping a thigh after a miss or leaning forward and putting her hands on her knees after others. By the time she flubbed a backhand while falling behind 5-1 in the second, she dropped her racket and screamed.

It took Kerber two tries to serve out the victory, getting broken to 5-2. But unlike in the quarterfinals, when she needed seven match points to win, this time it required only two, with the match ending – fittingly enough – on a forehand by Ostapenko that sailed wide.

The final tally told the story: Ostapenko had far more winners, 30-10, but also far more unforced errors, 36-7.