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Serena wins Cincinnati opener against Gavrilova

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MASON, Ohio (AP) Serena Williams bounced back from the most lopsided loss of her career, cruising past Darla Gavrilova 6-1, 6-2 at the Western & Southern Open on Monday.

Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam winner and a former champion in Cincinnati, needed just 65 minutes to dispatch Gavrilova. She’ll face eighth-seeded Petra Kvitova in Tuesday’s second round.

Williams lost to Johanna Konta 6-1, 6-0 in San Jose, California, before withdrawing from last week’s Rogers Cup in Montreal.

Earlier Monday, Andy Murray lost to Lucas Pouille 6-1, 1-6, 6-4, clearing another obstacle for Roger Federer in this U.S. Open tuneup.

Top-seeded Rafael Nadal dropped out Sunday night to prepare for the U.S. Open after winning his fifth title of the year in Toronto.

Murray had his best result since missing 11 months following hip surgery when he reached the quarterfinals in Washington two weeks ago. But he had a hard time adjusting to the Cincinnati courts.

“The start of the match was not good,” he said. “It was a pretty bad first set. After that, it was a little better.”

Federer, seeded second, has won in Cincinnati a record seven times but hasn’t played here since winning in 2015. In 2016, he had a knee injury, and in 2017 he had back problems.

“Cincinnati has always been a good tournament for me,” said Federer, the reigning Australian Open champion. “I was sad not to play here last year, and two years ago there wasn’t a chance. I’m glad to be back.”

Even with the top-ranked Nadal missing, Federer liked the strength of this field, especially with Murray and Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic having recovered from injuries.

“That’s why you have such a good, exciting draw,” Federer said before Murray’s match was over. “It’s a pity Rafa isn’t playing. He would have added massively to that part of the draw.”

Grigor Dmitrov, the defending champion who is seeded fifth, was not entirely upset about Nadal’s absence.

“When Rafa is missing, he’s missed, not so much by the players as much as the fans,” he said. “All joking aside, I love spending time with Rafa and practicing with him and playing with him. I would be the last person to say I wouldn’t want to play with him.”

Monday’s first full day of main-draw competition opened with 13th-seeded Madison Keys holding off Bethanie Mattek-Sands 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4 to reach the second round. Wild-card Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, also came from behind to beat Carla Suarez Navarro 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4.

Tenth-seeded Julia Goerges was losing to Kristina Mladenovic 6-4, 3-2 when she retired because of a lower left leg injury. Advancing were qualifier Ajia Tomjanovic, Aryna Sabalenka, Lesia Tsurenko, wild card Svetlana Kuznetsova, qualifier Viktoria Kuzmova and Anett Kontaveit.

On the men’s side, Sam Querrey ground out a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5) win over fellow American and ninth-seeded John Isner. Querrey gained an edge with a mini-break on the fifth point of the second tiebreaker when Isner sailed a forehand wide of the backhand sideline. Querry closed out the 2-hour, 7-minute match with an ace that survived a challenge by Isner.

Kei Nishikori beat Andrey Rublev 7-5, 6-3, and 13th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta topped Richard Gasquet 6-3, 2-6, 6-3. Other winners were Leonardo Mayer, Jeremy Chardy, Benoit Paire, Peter Gojowczyk, Denis Shapovalov and qualifier Bradley Klahn.

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Pliskova wins Italian Open for biggest clay title of career

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ROME (AP) – Karolina Pliskova captured the biggest clay-court title of her career by beating Johanna Konta 6-3, 6-4 Sunday in the Italian Open final.

Adding to a very consistent year from the 2016 U.S. Open runner-up, the victory will move Pliskova up to No. 2 in the rankings and makes her one of the contenders for the French Open, which starts next weekend.

“I just hope to take the tennis I was playing here to Paris,” Pliskova said. “For sure there’s going to be a chance for me if I play this way.”

Pliskova also reached the Australian Open semifinals and the Miami Open final after opening this season with a title in Brisbane, Australia. But she lost in the second round of her previous two tournaments on clay in Stuttgart, Germany, and Madrid.

“Nobody really gave me chance for this tournament – even me,” Pliskova said. “Before the tournament, I was not super confident, not thinking about the final at all. I was just happy with every match which I played. So it’s little bit like a miracle for me.”

The unseeded Konta appeared nervous at the start, double faulting then landing a backhand into the net to hand Pliskova a break in her opening service game.

In the second set, Pliskova used a swinging forehand volley putaway to break for a 4-3 lead and never looked back.

“It’s always tough playing Karolina,” Konta said. “There’s rarely really a rhythm to the match. She plays with big shots, quite flat, and big serves. It can feel sometimes you’re fighting an uphill battle. That was the case today.”

After converting her third championship point, Pliskova went over and slapped hands with Conchita Martinez, the four-time Rome champion who she recently named her head coach. Pliskova then asked Martinez and the rest of her team to come down onto the court for her victory celebration.

“She loved clay so she knows exactly what I should do,” Pliskova said of Martinez. “There were small differences: movement, maybe to put more topspin on the balls, use drop shots – which I never use, but I start little bit, and to mix also the serves. … I know she loved this tournament. I think she prayed so I could win today.”

Back on top: Nadal beats Djokovic for 9th Italian Open title

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ROME (AP) Rafael Nadal is right back where he wants to be.

After losing in the semifinals of three straight clay-court tournaments, Nadal dominated for stretches against his longtime rival, Novak Djokovic, in a 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 win Sunday for a record-extending ninth Italian Open title.

It marked the first time in an Open Era-record 54 meetings, and in their 142nd set against each other, that Nadal won a set against Djokovic without conceding a game – otherwise known as a bagel.

The timing for Nadal’s return to form could not have been more opportune, as he will seek a record-extending 12th title at the French Open starting next weekend.

“Winning a title is important but for me the most important thing is feel myself competitive, feel myself healthy,” Nadal said. “Then with the feeling that I am improving. I know if I’m able to reach my level you can win, you can lose, but normally I’m going to have my chances, especially on this surface.”

Top-ranked Djokovic, meanwhile, appeared exhausted after spending more than 5 1/2 hours on court against Juan Martin del Potro and Diego Schwartzman the previous two days.

Djokovic was also coming off the Madrid Open title last week.

“I don’t want to talk about fatigue or things like that,” Djokovic said. “Rafa was simply too strong today.”

In the women’s final earlier, Karolina Pliskova captured the biggest clay-court trophy of her career by beating Johanna Konta 6-3, 6-4.

The Foro Italico crowd continually tried to encourage Djokovic with chants of “Vai Nole!” – Go Nole! – but the top-ranked Serb struggled with his overhead and drop shots.

Midway through the second set, Nadal chased down a lob with an over-the-shoulder shot and Djokovic’s ensuing overhead landed in the net to conclude a long point.

Djokovic again netted an overhead in the next game and then kicked the ball in frustration when he missed a drop shot attempt late in the second.

But Djokovic hung around in the second and converted his first set point when a looping forehand from Nadal sailed wide for his first break of the match. As he walked to his chair after winning the second set, Djokovic waved his arms to get the crowd behind him.

However, Djokovic didn’t have much left in the tank.

When Nadal pushed Djokovic deep into the corner in the opening game of the third set and Djokovic’s desperation lob sailed long to hand Nadal a break, Djokovic smashed his racket to the clay three times in frustration and received a warning from the chair umpire.

Djokovic won only 29 percent of the points on his second serve and committed 39 unforced errors to Nadal’s 17. Also, Nadal won 23 of the 31 rallies with nine or more shots.

PLISKOVA NO. 2

Pliskova’s victory will move her up to No. 2 in the rankings and makes her one of the contenders for Roland Garros.

“I just hope to take the tennis I was playing here to Paris,” Pliskova said. “For sure there’s going to be a chance for me if I play this way.”

The 2016 U.S. Open runner-up, Pliskova also reached the Australian Open semifinals and the Miami Open final after opening this season with a title in Brisbane, Australia. But she lost in the second round of her previous two tournaments on clay in Stuttgart, Germany, and Madrid.

“Nobody really gave me chance for this tournament – even me,” Pliskova said. “Before the tournament, I was not super confident, not thinking about the final at all. I was just happy with every match which I played. So it’s little bit like a miracle for me.”

The unseeded Konta appeared nervous at the start, double faulting then landing a backhand into the net to hand Pliskova a break in her opening service game.

In the second set, Pliskova used a swinging forehand volley putaway to break for a 4-3 lead and never looked back.

“It’s always tough playing Karolina,” Konta said. “There’s rarely really a rhythm to the match. She plays with big shots, quite flat, and big serves. It can feel sometimes you’re fighting an uphill battle. That was the case today.”

After converting her third championship point, Pliskova went over and slapped hands with Conchita Martinez, the four-time Rome champion who she recently named her head coach. Pliskova then asked Martinez and the rest of her team to come down onto the court for her victory celebration.

“She loved clay so she knows exactly what I should do,” Pliskova said of Martinez. “There were small differences: movement, maybe to put more topspin on the balls, use drop shots – which I never use, but I start little bit, and to mix also the serves. … I know she loved this tournament. I think she prayed so I could win today.”