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Nadal, Sharapova advance in straight sets at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal has missed a lot of tennis since last September. He hasn’t missed a beat.

The No. 2-seeded Nadal had a 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 win over Australian wild-card entry James Duckworth on Monday in the first round of the Australian Open, his first match back on Rod Laver Arena since he had to retire during his quarterfinal match last year.

The 17-time major winner hasn’t played since retiring from his semifinal at the U.S. Open because of a knee injury, and then had surgery on his right ankle in November. He also withdrew from a tune-up tournament in Brisbane because of a muscle strain in his thigh, mainly as a precaution, to ensure he’s fit for the season-opening major.

“Not easy to come back after a lot of months of competition, especially against a player playing super aggressive every shot,” Nadal said. “It’s very difficult to start after an injury – I know it very well. It’s very special to be back.”

Wearing a sleeveless top, he showed no signs of any issues against Duckworth. His only hiccup came when he served for the match in the ninth game of the third set and was broken at love. He returned the favor very quickly, though, to seal his spot in the second round.

Nadal has only lost twice in the first round at Grand Slams – to Steve Darcis at 2013 Wimbledon, and to Fernando Verdasco here in 2016 – and is aiming to be the first man in the Open era two win all four majors at least twice.

Maria Sharapova was the first of five Australian Open winners to play on Rod Laver Arena on Day 1, starting with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Harriet Dart. No. 2-ranked Angelique Kerber, the 2016 Australian Open champion, opened with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Polona Hercog.

Sharapova has the second-best record among active women’s players in first-round matches at the majors, and she gave an illustration of why that’s the case in a 63-minute disposal of Dart.

The 2008 champion is making her 15th trip to Melbourne Park and her 55th Grand Slam tournament, and she’s acutely aware of the toll that the sun and long early matches can have on a player’s title ambitions, so she gets straight to business.

Stung by a first-round loss at Wimbledon last year, Sharapova said she couldn’t afford to feel any empathy for Dart.

“I mean, there is no time for that, I’m sorry to say … when you’re playing the first round of a Grand Slam,” said Sharapova, who is still feeling pain in her right shoulder despite sitting out the end of last season after the U.S. Open. “I think I was just focused on not having a letdown.

“I think it’s very easy to be in a position where things are flowing, you know, you’re doing all the right things, she’s making a few errors, you’re comfortable, easy to get complacent, and, you know, complacency is not great. I was glad that I did the right things from the beginning till the end.”

Also advancing were 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, No. 11 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 19 Caroline Garcia, No. 29 Donna Vekic and No. 31 Petra Martic.

Danielle Collins advanced to the second round of a major for the first time following a 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 win over No. 14-seeded Julia Goerges, who won the title in Auckland to start the season.

Katie Boulter earned the distinction of winning the first 10-point tiebreaker under the Australian Open’s new system for deciding sets, and she celebrated twice.

Boulter beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-0, 4-6, 7-6 (6), including 10-6 in the tiebreaker. Boulter started celebrating and went to the net when she reached 7-4 in the tiebreaker, forgetting it wasn’t a conventional count.

The new rule was introduced to ensure matches don’t get too lengthy – previously the third set in women’s matches and the fifth set in men’s matches at the Australian Open had to be decided by a two-game advantage.

Fifth-seeded Kevin Anderson won his first match at Melbourne Park since 2015 when he beat Adrian Mannarino 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1. Also advancing on the men’s side were No. 19 Nikoloz Basilashvili, No. 20 Grigor Dimitrov and No. 26 Fernando Verdasco.

Defending champions Caroline Wozniacki and Roger Federer were scheduled to play night matches later Monday.

Benedetti wins 12th stage; Polanc takes Giro lead

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PINEROLO, Italy (AP) Cesare Benedetti won the 12th stage of the Giro d’Italia on Thursday for his first victory as a professional while Jan Polanc took the overall leader’s pink jersey from UAE Emirates teammate Valerio Conti.

Benedetti, an Italian with the Bora team who has been a support rider for his entire career, was part of an early breakaway then accelerated from a select group of riders in a sprint finish.

“I’ve worked a lot for the others in the past but today I got my opportunity,” Benedetti said. “I’m not (usually) a winner.”

Benedetti required 3 hours, 41 minutes to complete the 158-kilometer (98-mile) leg from Cuneo to Pinerolo, which featured one major climb and another shorter but steeper ascent just before the finish.

Damiano Caruso crossed second and Eddie Dunbar came third, each with the same time as Benedetti. Polanc, a Slovenian who was also in the breakaway, finished 25 seconds behind.

In the overall standings, Polanc leads Primoz Roglic by 4 minutes, 7 seconds. Vincenzo Nibali, one of the pre-race favorites, is fifth overall, 5:51 behind.

“It was a team tactic that I would go in the breakaway so we could have a better control over the race,” Polanc said. “It was also a way to keep the pink jersey in the team.”

Mikel Landa and Miguel Angel Lopez attacked on the first-category climb to Montoso and gained about 30 seconds on the other overall favorites.

Before the stage began, sprinters Caleb Ewan and Elia Viviani withdrew from the race. Ewan won two stages, including the 11th leg a day earlier, while Viviani posted three second-place finishes.

Stage 13 on Friday is one of the race’s toughest, with two category one climbs and one category ascent, along with an uphill finish at the end of the 196-kilometer leg from Pinerolo to Ceresole Reale.

The Giro ends June 2 in Verona.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Tsonga rallies past qualifier to reach quarterfinals in Lyon

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LYON, France (AP) Former champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga rallied past Canadian qualifier Steven Diez on Wednesday to reach the quarterfinals and extend his perfect record at the Lyon Open.

Tsonga, the 2017 champion, came within two points of losing but finally prevailed 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3 on his sixth match point after 2 hours, 42 minutes.

The clay-court event serves as a warmup for the French Open, which starts Sunday in Paris.

“It was good for me to play a long match like this,” Tsonga said. “I haven’t played a match this long for a while. I am not playing my best level, but I am giving everything mentally and that gives me confidence.”

Tsonga will next take on top-seeded Nikoloz Basilashvili, who beat lucky loser Tristan Lamasine 7-5, 7-5.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports