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Venus Williams helps US clinch Fed Cup win over Netherlands

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) Venus Williams helped the United States advance in the Fed Cup before assisting in her sister’s return to competitive tennis.

Williams defeated Richel Hogenkamp 7-5, 6-1 to give the U.S. a decisive 3-0 lead in its best-of-five matchup with the Netherlands. The U.S. advanced to a World Group semifinal April 21-22 at France, which defeated Belgium 3-2 this weekend.

“Honestly, I feel like we were all a team out here, us playing and everyone in the stands,” Williams said in her post-match interview in front of the sellout crowd of over 5,000 at U.S. Cellular Center. “It was all of us together, and it felt awesome.”

Williams will play doubles later Sunday alongside her sister, Serena Williams, who will be returning to tennis after spending a year away from the game to become a mother.

Serena Williams gave birth to her daughter Sept. 1 and hasn’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.

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.

Sunday’s scheduled singles match between CoCo Vandeweghe and Arantxa Rus was scrapped because the outcome of this best-of-five event already has been decided, but the doubles match will go on as scheduled.

Before the doubles match started, the U.S. team celebrated its triumph over the Netherlands. Davis carried an American flag while joining the Williams sisters and Vandeweghe on a victory lap around the court.

The U.S. had taken a 2-0 lead Saturday when Venus Williams defeated Rus 6-4, 6-1 and Vandeweghe rallied from a set and a break down to beat Hogenkamp 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3.

“Honestly, I’d like to think CoCo wore her out some,” Venus Williams said after her own victory over Hogenkamp.

Venus Williams’ victory over Hogenkamp improved her Fed Cup singles record to 21-2 with 11 straight victories. Her only Fed Cup singles losses came in 1999 to Russia’s Elena Dementieva and in 2005 to Russia’s Anastasia Myskina.

Hogenkamp had a break-point opportunity that would have put her ahead 6-5 in the first set before Williams won the final seven points of the set. Williams took the last five games of the match to wrap up the victory.

“You’re under pressure a lot,” Hogenkamp said. “Every time you hit a second serve, you see someone at the other side standing one or two meters inside the baseline. She’s giving a lot of pressure to me when I’m serving, overall putting pressure on you. I think that’s one of her strengths. For me it’s tough, when I’m not feeling the match really well, to handle that.”

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.

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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.

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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.