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Yannick Noah taking no chances ahead of Davis Cup final

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PARIS — Laid-back in everyday life, Yannick Noah is meticulous when it comes to being a tennis coach.

So over the last 10 days, the France captain has been paying close attention to anything that could derail his team’s chances of winning an 11th Davis Cup title against Croatia this weekend.

“The most important thing was to spend as much time as possible together thinking about this final,” said Noah, who summoned his players for a demanding training camp in northern France about two weeks ahead of the final.

“We could have imagined a training camp in Paris. Once the day is over, everybody gets back home,” Noah said. “In fact, you lose your focus. Here, as soon as we woke up, we were in the final. When we started to run in the morning, it was still dark, but we were already in the final. During our meals, we thought about the final.”

Noah guided France to Davis Cup titles in 1991, 1996 and 2017, but he will step down after this weekend and Amelie Mauresmo will take over.

Since he returned to captain France in 2016, Noah has been rewarded with success. Despite a drop in individual performances, Noah’s players have reached the Davis Cup semifinals every year during his most recent stint, losing only once to Croatia in 2016. They won the title against Belgium last year and now have the chance to conquer the last final played in its traditional format. Beginning next year, the top team event in men’s tennis will be decided with a season-ending, 18-team tournament at a neutral site.

“We’ve got a unique chance, which will never happen again, to play a Davis Cup final at home,” Noah said. “We fought for this chance throughout the year. Not only for the team, but also for the event. Most of us have been obsessed by (this final). We want to make sure we are on top of all the things that can be controlled. Then there will be the craziness of the match.”

The Croats are favored to claim a second title after their team became the first unseeded nation to win the 2005 Davis Cup by defeating Slovakia.

While French players have been struggling individually over the last 12 months – Lucas Pouille is the best ranked Frenchman in Noah’s team at No. 32 – Croatia will be led by seventh-ranked Marin Cilic, who qualified for the ATP Finals this month after a consistent season. In singles, Cilic will be backed by No. 12 Borna Coric.

The final will be played on clay under the retractable roof of the Pierre Mauroy Stadium in Lille and Cilic might struggle to adapt to the slow surface, having competed on hard court last week in London.

“I will be ready,” Cilic said. “We had Davis Cup ties already on clay immediately after hard court tournaments. I believe I’m going to be fine, adjusting my play, a bit more of sliding, running. The conditions (on) indoor clay are slightly faster than outdoor clay. I will be fine.”

Pouille wrapped up France’s 10th Davis Cup title last year by winning the decisive point against Belgium in the final. In the absence of Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon, he will play in singles while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has been sidelined with a knee injury for most of the season, is likely to be used as France’s No. 2. Noah has also the option of fielding Jeremy Chardy.

In doubles, France has the better team with French Open champions Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who reached the final at the ATP Finals.

This year’s Davis Cup final has a familiar ring to it, at least for fans of soccer. France defeated Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup final in July.

Croatia captain Zeljko Krajan said his team did not receive any encouraging messages from the country’s soccer players but added “they will be happy if we (avenge) the World Cup final.”

Osaka opens clay campaign by beating Hsieh in Stuttgart

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STUTTGART, Germany — Top-ranked Naomi Osaka opened her clay-court season by beating Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan 6-4, 6-3, on Thursday to reach the Porsche Grand Prix quarterfinals.

Osaka hit 22 winners and converted three of her six break points to seal the win in 1 hour, 24 minutes and set up a meeting with Donna Vekic of Croatia.

After saving two break points early, it was an unusually smooth victory for Osaka over Hsieh. She needed three sets to get past the Taiwanese veteran en route to her Australian Open victory and then lost to her at the Miami Open last month.

“I felt like this surface is more suited for me (than Hsieh),” Osaka said. “I was sort of in my plan. So, I just felt like I executed what I was trying to do.”

Two-time Stuttgart champion Angelique Kerber also advanced by beating fellow German Andrea Petkovic 6-2, 6-4. The fifth-seeded Kerber saved two break points to hold for 2-2 in the first set and then reeled off the next four games to take control. She then earned a decisive break for 4-3 in the second before closing out the win with her fourth match point.

Kerber will face sixth-seeded Kiki Bertens, who served 20 aces to rally for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Belinda Bencic.

No. 7 Anastasija Sevastova also advanced by beating former champion Laura Siegemund of Germany 6-4, 6-3 to set up a quarterfinal against Petra Kvitova, who advanced on Wednesday.

Vekic dispatched Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, 6-1, 7-5, earlier on Thursday.

Nadal rallies to beat Mayer in Barcelona Open

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BARCELONA, Spain – Rafael Nadal recovered from a slow start to defeat Leonard Mayer 6-7 (7), 6-4, 6-2 and advance to the third round of the Barcelona Open on Wednesday, keeping alive his streak of never losing consecutive matches on clay.

The second-ranked Nadal was coming off defeat to Fabio Fognini in the semifinals of the Monte Carlo Open.

An 11-time champion in Barcelona, Nadal will next play fellow Spaniard David Ferrer. The 37-year-old Ferrer, who is playing in Barcelona for the last time, defeated Lucas Pouille 6-3, 6-1 in his second-round match.

The top-seeded Nadal squandered two set points after exchanging breaks late in the first set. He rebounded quickly by breaking Mayer’s serve in the first game of the second set, then cruised to victory against the 63rd-ranked Argentine.

Fognini won’t be able to add to his Monte Carlo win after withdrawing from the Barcelona tournament because of a hamstring injury. He was replaced by 104th-ranked Roberto Carballes Baena, who opened with a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-2 win over Nicola Kuhn.

Seventh-seeded Daniil Medvedev reached the third round by defeating Albert Ramos-Vinolas 6-3, 2-6, 6-1, while American Mackenzie McDonald advanced with a 6-3, 6-2 win over 11th-seeded Gilles Simon.