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Williams vs. Rodina is matchup of Mom vs. Mom at Wimbledon

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LONDON (AP) When Serena Williams steps out on Centre Court to play Evgeniya Rodina in Wimbledon’s fourth round on Monday, it will be a rare meeting of Mom vs. Mom.

Such matchups could happen with greater frequency as parenthood becomes increasingly popular on the women’s tennis tour.

There were a half-dozen mothers in the singles main draw at the All England Club this year: 23-time Grand Slam champion Williams; another former No. 1 and two-time major champ, Victoria Azarenka; Rodina, Kateryna Bondarenko, Tatjana Maria and Vera Zvonareva.

Two more moms entered the doubles event, Mandy Minella and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. A ninth, Patty Schnyder, lost during qualifying for singles.

“At different points, we’ve had one or two mothers at a time. And then it’s grown to three or four mothers. And now we’ve seen that we have more, at present, than we’ve had in the past. There was Margaret Court. Evonne Goolagong. (Kim) Clijsters,” said Kathleen Stroia, WTA Senior VP for sport sciences and medicine, naming mothers who won Grand Slam titles.

“The difference,” she said, “is that now it’s certainly something that is becoming common.”

Williams is competing in her second major tournament since having a daughter, Olympia, last September. Motherhood is an important part of who she is now.

The 36-year-old American has spoken openly about a health scare during childbirth. About gaining weight while breast-feeding. About the joys of bringing her child onsite to a tournament for the first time. About the difficulty of dividing her time between family and forehands. About the precedent the All England Club set by seeding her 25th, based on past success that includes seven Wimbledon titles, even though she was ranked outside the top 150 after missing more than a full season, first while pregnant, then after giving birth.

“It will be really nice for these women to take a year off, and have the most amazing thing in the world,” Williams said, “then come back to their job and not have to start from the bottom, scrape, scrape, scrape.”

She tweeted over the weekend about missing the chance to see Olympia take her first steps, because it happened during a training session.

What working parent can’t relate to that?

Azarenka knows it can be difficult to reconcile parenthood and a career.

She skipped some tournaments, including last year’s U.S. Open, while working out a custody dispute with the father of her son, Leo.

“I really want to spend every second with him,” Azarenka said. “I feel guilty if I take 15 minutes for myself to stretch. I’m trying to run back to him and spend every second with him. So that’s the balance I think is the tough one.”

As a member of the WTA player council, Azarenka has been involved with discussions about how the tour can help the growing group of moms. Among the topics being looked at: the “protected ranking” policy, which allows players to enter a certain number of tournaments based on where they were ranked before taking time off because of an injury, illness or pregnancy; whether a similar rule should be established with regards to seeding.

One concern raised by some of the mothers in interviews during Wimbledon was that not enough tournaments offer childcare facilities, the way the four Grand Slams do.

While Maria was in action at the grass-court tournament, her 4-year-old daughter, Charlotte, spent her days at what the All England Club calls the competitors’ creche, essentially a nursery for children of players and coaches.

It opened in 1983, was refurbished in 2015, and has space for 15 or so kids.

“It’s like a regular kindergarten. They eat together. They do activities. We don’t have to look after her at all. Normally, we check on her at the other Grand Slams: `Are you hungry?’ or `Do you want to leave?'” Maria said. “But she wants to be there from 11 in the morning until 8 o’clock in the evening, every day. She loves it.”

Maria said her daughter often plays with the daughters of Rodina and Bondarenko. Zvonareva’s 2-year-old, Evelyn, spent time at the creche, too, while Mom played at Wimbledon for the first time since 2014.

Rodina, a 29-year-old qualifier from Russia with $1.7 million in career prize money, said that at other tournaments, she’ll sometimes leave her 5+-year-old daughter in the players’ lounge with an iPad to keep her occupied. That’s better than having the child in the stands during a match, which makes Rodina too nervous.

The WTA leaves it up to individual tournaments to decide whether to provide childcare. Some that do, according to the tour: Madrid, Stuttgart, Acapulco and St. Petersburg.

Asked whether the WTA might require or encourage tournaments to provide such services, Stroia said the tour will “evolve with the growing needs of the players,” but more has to be known about what is wanted by the athletes.

“I hope something will change,” Maria said. “You need some big names to help. If Serena comes and says, `I want to have a creche,’ maybe it’ll work.”

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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

Tennis and tropical plants: New French Open court is wild

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PARIS (AP) Tennis and tropical plants: The stunning new court at the French Open is, quite literally, wild.

Surrounded on all four sides by greenhouses filed with exotic plants, the Court Simonne Mathieu saw its first French Open match on Sunday, a triumph for tournament organizers who overcame strong opposition from critics who long sought to block construction in a 19th-century garden of the 5,290-seat arena.

Automatic sprinklers periodically doused the lush greenery from Africa, Asia, South America and Australia as Garbine Muguruza, too busy to notice, beat Taylor Townsend of the United States 5-7, 6-2, 6-2.

Muguruza, the 2016 champion, later gave a big thumbs-up to the sunken arena that is now the third-biggest at Roland Garros, after the 9,829-seat Court Suzanne Lenglen and the 14,962-seat showcase Court Philippe Chatrier that is in the process of being rebuilt.

“It’s a very cute court. It’s not small, but it’s, you know, cozy,” Muguruza said. “It’s like in a garden. It’s a different feeling.”

Spectators were impressed, too.

“It’s like being in a forest,” said Parisian Kelly Orsinet. “It’s relaxing and pleasant.”

Sinking the red clay court and surrounding it with tasteful modern hothouses filled with leafy plants prevented it from being an eyesore in its historic surrounds, the Auteuil gardens that date back to 1898 and are loved for their majestic steel and glass greenhouses for prized botanical collections.

Expanding into the gardens is part of a massive, partially completed 380-million euro ($425 million) revamp of Roland Garros, the smallest of tennis’ Grand Slam venues that can feel uncomfortably cramped in its busiest opening week.

Gilles Jourdan, the project manager overseeing the modernization, was on hand to savor the new arena’s atmosphere with its first crowd, a landmark in what has been a difficult birth, complicated by legal challenges from opponents.

Neighbors who overlook the site had “said `It’s a disgrace! A disgrace!” Jourdan recalled. “Fewer and fewer are saying it’s a disgrace now.”

“You can’t see the court. That’s very important and that was the most fundamental idea,” he said. “If you’re not flying overhead in a helicopter, you wouldn’t know there’s a court there.”

Like other showcase courts at Roland Garros, the lower of the arena’s two tiers is tastefully fitted with cream-colored, hand-finished seats of chestnut wood from eastern France. Upper-tier spectators, some of whom have a view of the Eiffel Tower, are seated on benches, because fitting seats up there would have blocked lines of sight, clogging the arena’s airy, open feel, Jourdan explained.

Named after the French Open women’s champion in 1938 and 1939, the Court Simonne Mathieu was about half-empty for the start of the match but continually filled as Muguruza fought back from her unsteady start in a westerly breeze that shook leaves on the tall trees overlooking the arena.

Modernization work will resume after the tournament. The Chatrier court, largely torn down after Rafael Nadal won his 11th title there last year, has been rebuilt but is still missing the retractable roof planned for next year.

In the meantime, organizers have done a good job of making the project-in-progress look spic and span for the next two weeks.

“It’s a bit like at the theater: You look backstage and go `Ooops,”‘ Jourdan said. “We’ve hidden everything, and 10 days after the tournament, we’ll start again.”

Tennis’ Big 3: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic still rule tennis

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The Big 3 are still very much around. They’re still leading the rankings, still collecting the biggest trophies. And they’re still the dominant figures in men’s tennis, responsible for the main storylines when the French Open starts Sunday.

Roger Federer returns to Roland Garros for the first time since 2015 — and a decade after he completed the career Grand Slam by winning his only trophy there. Rafael Nadal seeks a record-extending — and hard-to-fathom — 12th title in Paris. Novak Djokovic bids to win his fourth major championship in a row for the second time in his career, something neither of his two great rivals ever did even once.

They occupy the top three spots in the rankings, with Djokovic followed by Nadal, then Federer. They occupy the top three slots on the list of most men’s Grand Slam titles, with Federer’s 20 followed by Nadal’s 17 and Djokovic’s 15. And they have combined to win the past nine major tournaments, with three apiece.

“Nadal’s reign is never over. Just like Federer’s reign isn’t ending,” said Riccardo Piatti, who coached Djokovic when the Serb was a teen and has worked with other top-10 players. “As long as they play, they’re always very dangerous. But let’s not forget that Djokovic is No. 1.”

Might seem silly now, but there was a stretch when some wondered whether this group might be done with all of that winning.

Federer, who’s now 37, went 4½ years without adding to his Slam count. He dealt with knee surgery and recurring back problems. He sat out the 2016 French Open, ending a streak of 65 straight major appearances, then missed the U.S. Open and Rio Olympics that year, too. He skipped the entire clay-court circuit each of the last two years, before finally coming back this season and reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome, where he withdrew, citing an injured right leg.

“In practice in Switzerland, I felt good right away,” Federer said about what it initially was like for him on the slow surface, which requires extra footwork and lengthy, grind-it-out exchanges. “Very happy where I’m at, to be quite honest. I was a bit surprised that it went as easy as it did.”

Nadal, who turns 33 during the French Open, did not win a title all season until last week at the Italian Open, which is mainly surprising because it means he kept faltering on his beloved clay.

He’s been sidelined by hand and knee injuries in 2019, and his play hasn’t always been up to his usual standards.

“Been some low moments for me,” he said.

But Nadal looked a lot more like himself in Rome, where he handed opponents a total of four 6-0 sets, including one against Djokovic in the final.

Asked to look ahead to Paris after that three-set loss, Djokovic said: “Nadal, No. 1 favorite, without a doubt. Then everyone else.”

“He’s one of the greatest champions this game has ever seen,” Djokovic said. “His mentality, his approach, his resilience, ability to fight back after long absence from the tour, injuries, surgeries. He’s had it all. He keeps on showing to the world why he’s one of the biggest legends of tennis history.”

Djokovic, who turned 32 on Wednesday, missed the last half of 2017 with a bad right elbow; he eventually had surgery last year, which he began with a 6-6 record and losses in the Australian Open’s fourth round and French Open’s quarterfinals. He was so bothered by the latter, which stretched his major title drought to two years, that he left Roland Garros in a huff, declaring he might skip Wimbledon.

So much for that.

Not only did he play at the All England Club, he won the trophy. Then he did the same at the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, making him the only man in tennis history with three separate streaks of three consecutive majors. Now Djokovic has a shot at a non-calendar Grand Slam, something he already accomplished in 2015-16 — and can set his sights on a true Grand Slam, winning all four majors in the same season, which only has been done by two men: Donald Budge in 1938, Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969.

And Djokovic has looked good on clay lately, winning the title in Madrid before losing to Nadal in Rome.

So now, really, the question is: How much longer can this terrific trio continue to thrive and hold off talented up-and-coming players such as 25-year-old Dominic Thiem, who lost to Nadal in last year’s French Open final, or 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Federer in Australia in January before losing his first Grand Slam semifinal to Nadal?

“Time is undefeated and these guys are doing a hell of a job of fighting it off, but it has to come at some point,” said International Tennis Hall of Fame member Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion. “Once these guys are gone, there’s a serious vacuum. … Roger, Rafa and Novak — they’re arguably the three best of all time.”

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AP Sports Writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.