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Nadal wary of saying he’s fully recovered from thigh injury

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MONACO (AP) Rafael Nadal is wary of saying he’s fully recovered from a troublesome right thigh injury as he defends his Monte Carlo Masters title.

The top-ranked Spaniard only recently returned to action at the Davis Cup, after a recurrence of the injury forced him out of the Mexico Open and then Masters tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami last month.

Those setbacks followed his crushing disappointment at the Australian Open, where he was forced to retire in the fifth set of the quarterfinal against Marin Cilic.

Nadal had expected to make his comeback in Acapulco, but the injury flared up again during a last practice session with French player Adrian Mannarino. Looking back on it Sunday, the 16-time Grand Slam champion said it was mentally “even harder than what happened in Australia” because he was so convinced he would play.

“I did all the things the right way, practicing one week before, to be ready for the tournament and then it happened,” Nadal told reporters. “You’re in Acapulco, you fly all the way … Then the doctors told me: `You will not be able to play in Indian Wells, Miami.’ So that was hard to accept.”

So was the painstakingly dull recovery which followed.

“I was unable to do any physical work because the psoas (muscle) was affecting all the movements I could do,” he said. “It was a boring time because I don’t like to be doing nothing.”

Nadal wasn’t bored last weekend, however, winning both his Davis Cup singles against Germany without dropping a set. Although he appears to have slotted straight back into his clay groove, his Acapulco setback leaves him circumspect about speaking too soon.

“Well it happened twice, so you never know,” he said. “Of course it stays a little bit in your mind.”

Nadal begins his bid for a record-extending 11th Monte Carlo title with a second-round match against either Aljaz Bedene or Mirza Basic. He needs to win the tournament or Roger Federer will reclaim top ranking in their seemingly endless fight for supremacy. They have won the last five Grand Slams, three for Federer

But with 20-time major winner Federer again skipping the clay season, Nadal must wait a while longer to try and avenge a run of five straight defeats to the Swiss star.

He took a swipe, although an amiable one, at Federer.

“He says he will love to play against me again in best of five sets on clay, and I thought he would play Roland Garros,” Nadal said, with a wry smile. “A few days later he says he will not play in one (clay) event, so there’s a little bit of controversy with that.”

Nadal’s victory at Monte Carlo last year made him the first men’s tennis player in the Open era to win the same title 10 times. He then won a 10th French Open.

He feels at home at the picture-postcard tournament with its center court perched over the glittering Mediterranean sea. The Monte Carlo tournament launched his career as a scraggly-haired 16-year-old in 2003, although the sun had long set when he beat defending French Open champion Albert Costa under floodlights in the second round.

“I always feel good when I am here,” Nadal said. “It’s been a love story.”

The only Monte Carlo final that the 31-year-old Nadal has lost was to Novak Djokovic in 2013. Djokovic added another Monte Carlo title in 2015, during his pomp.

But the former top-ranked Serb looks a shadow of the player he was. Hindered by a persistent right elbow injury, his ranking has tumbled to 13.

Earlier this month, Djokovic stopped working with Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek – the latest in a series of coaching changes for the 12-time major champion.

After significant rest during the second half of last year and a medical procedure in February, Djokovic spoke confidently of being pain-free – at long last.

Then, he lost his first match at the Miami Open in straight sets.

Djokovic used to be the player everyone was chasing. He even beat Nadal during a glorious run of seven straight finals and holds a 26-24 winning record against him.

They have won a record 30 Masters each, but Nadal looks the more likely to get No. 31.

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.