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Serena, Osaka win opening matches in Miami

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Facing the setting sun, Serena Williams tried to shield her eyes with her left hand as she hit a shot, lost the point and then waved in frustration at the bothersome glare.

Later, after a seesaw victory in her first match at the Miami Open’s new site, she was able to joke about the unwanted spotlight.

“A lot of photographers came,” Williams said. “I thought, `This must be good light.’ I thought about taking a selfie, but you’ve got to stay in the moment.”

Williams played poorly for a stretch and was broken three times but steadied her game in the final set to beat Rebecca Peterson 6-3, 1-6, 6-1. She avoided a repeat of last year, when she was eliminated in the first round by Naomi Osaka.

That was Williams’ farewell to Key Biscayne, where she won eight titles. Only Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf have won any women’s tournament more times.

With the Miami Open’s move to the Dolphins’ stadium complex, players are adjusting to the unfamiliar setting. The No. 1-ranked Osaka beat qualifier Yanina Wickmayer 6-0, 6-7 (3), 6-1, but she and Williams both found the mix of sun and shadows in the cavernous stadium a challenge.

“It was interesting,” Williams said. “First it was dark out there, which was really odd. The shadows were so intense it was dark, and then … there was light.”

She chuckled and said, “Whatever. I need to focus on playing better or not being in the tournament much longer.”

Osaka agreed that any issues with visibility weren’t worth complaining about. She hit 14 aces and overcame a ragged stretch in the second set, when she became so frustrated she threw her racket.

“I had a bit of a dip,” Osaka said. “It was really hard for me, I think, emotionally in the second set, because I just started thinking about winning, not exactly the things I could do in order to win.”

Williams’ match followed a similar pattern, but she regrouped after a flurry of errors in the second set.

“I said, `Serena, you can play a lot better than that,”‘ she said.

While the outer courts were crowded on a mild, cloudless afternoon, there were only a few thousand spectators for Williams’ match in the 13,800-seat stadium, with temporary stands on three sides and a net replacing the 50-yard line.

“It was a different court, but it was a beautiful court,” said Williams, who happens to own a small share of the Dolphins. “It’s so different from anything I’ve played on in my entire career, so I was super excited.”

The mood was mostly subdued, although when Williams whacked a backhand winner with a grunt that echoed in the upper deck, the fans added their own roar to hers.

The match victory was the 76th for Williams in the tournament, but she hasn’t won a Miami Open title since 2015. She hasn’t won any tournament since the 2017 Australian Open, before she took a break of more than a year to become a mom.

The match was her first since she retired at Indian Wells two weeks ago because of a viral illness.

On the men’s side, defending champion John Isner hit 20 aces, lost only 11 points on his serve and beat qualifier Lorenzo Sonego 7-6 (2), 7-6 (7).

No. 5-seeded Kei Nishikori was upset by Dusan Lajovic 2-6, 6-2, 6-3. Lajovic improved to 3-14 against top-10 players.

In other women’s play, Canadian 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu, who overcame a match point to win her opening match, reached the third round by beating No. 32 Sofia Kenin 6-3, 6-3. Andreescu won her first career title last week at Indian Wells.

Defending Miami Open champion Sloane Stephens beat Ons Jabeur 6-2, 6-3. Three-time champion Venus Williams overcame a wobbly start to beat No. 24 Carla Suarez Navarro 7-6 (4), 6-1.

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.”