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Djokovic eyes French Open final against Nadal

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MONACO — As Novak Djokovic begins his preparations for a fourth straight Grand Slam title, he likes to imagine beating Rafael Nadal in the French Open final.

“That would be the match of the season, yes,” Djokovic said Sunday at the Monte Carlo Masters. Djokovic and his longtime rival Nadal are starting their clay-court seasons this week at Monte Carlo, their first tuneup on clay ahead of the May 26-June 9 French Open in Paris, and which could see them meet for a 54th time if they reach the final.

Toppling Nadal at Roland Garros, where the Spaniard is the defending champion and a record 11-time winner, is what Djokovic really wants.

It’s something Djokovic considers “one of the ultimate challenges of the sport” – much like facing Roger Federer during his grass-court prime at Wimbledon. They are the three most successful players in Grand Slam history: Federer has won a record 20 majors, Nadal 17 and Djokovic is catching them up with 15.

The top-ranked Djokovic has won the past three majors in straight sets, including a stunning rout of Nadal in the Australian Open final this year. He also has a 28-25 winning record against Nadal – a considerable achievement in itself.

Yet despite all the positive points stacked up, he considers Nadal a different and much more dangerous opponent at this stage of the season.

“I think Rafa is always a very clear favorite on any clay court in the world, and it doesn’t change,” Djokovic said. “He’s still there. I mean (it) obviously depends how he’s feeling physically. I have seen him (training) here, he’s been here a few days. Seems like he’s fine.”

Djokovic referred to Nadal’s troublesome right knee, which flared up again last month and forced the second-ranked Nadal to pull out of his eagerly-awaited semifinal against Federer at Indian Wells.

That was on hard courts, however, and clay is kinder to the 32-year-old Nadal’s battered knees.

Nadal has won Monte Carlo 11 times, also a record. His 46-match winning streak in Monte Carlo – broken by Djokovic in the 2013 final – is the most consecutive wins at a tournament by any man or woman.

Both players have byes to the second round here, and are due to play Tuesday or Wednesday.

Nadal faces either countryman Roberto Bautista Agut or John Millman of Australia, having not lost to them. Djokovic’s opponent is Taro Daniel of Japan or Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber, who has lost eight of 10 matches against Djokovic but beat him at Indian Wells.

After winning the Australian Open, Djokovic had a blip few saw coming when he failed to reach the quarterfinals at both Indian Wells and the Miami Open.

He has already shrugged off those losses, or at least slotted them into perspective.

“I was disappointed, because I thought I could go far. But at the same time I’ll try to look on the positive side,” the 31-year-old Djokovic said. “I’ve had great form the past 12 months. That can serve only as an incentive.”

In opening first-round play Sunday, there were wins for three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, ninth-seeded Borna Coric of Croatia, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and Argentine Guido Pella.

Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, advanced with a 7-5, 6-3 win against Lucas Pouille – who has lost all his matches since being crushed by Djokovic in the Australian Open semis.

Coric beat Hubert Hurkacz of Poland 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 in damp and overcast conditions on the French Riviera, with heavy rain interrupting play early in the afternoon.

Dimitrov won 7-5, 6-4 against Matteo Berrettini, while Pella beat Laslo Djere 6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-4 and next plays seventh-seeded Marin Cilic.

Fognini beats Lajovic to win Monte Carlo Masters

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MONACO (AP) Fabio Fognini won the biggest title of his career after beating Dusan Lajovic 6-3, 6-4 Sunday in the Monte Carlo Masters final.

The 13th-seeded Italian’s first title of the year was his ninth overall but first at Masters level.

It came the day after he stunned defending champion Rafael Nadal in straight sets, becoming the first player to beat Nadal here since Novak Djokovic in the 2015 semifinals.

“It has been an incredible week, I will keep working,” Fognini said. “I started the season badly so this is unbelievable.”

After going out in the third round of the Australian Open, Fognini had won only one match and lost six times before this tournament.

Playing here may have given him a boost, however, since he grew up in nearby San Remo – just over the Italian border and a short drive or train ride away along the glittering Mediterranean coast.

The 48th-ranked Lajovic’s run to his first career final was unexpected. But the unseeded Serb rarely threatened in humid, overcast and slightly windy conditions.

Fognini needed a medical timeout to receive treatment to his right foot and right thigh after the fifth game of the second set.

But it did not impede him as he served out the match, clinching victory on his second match point when Lajovic hit a forehand wide.

The players hugged warmly at the net.

The 31-year-old Fognini is only the fourth man to win the clay-court event since Nadal’s first of a record 11 wins in 2005. Djokovic, twice, and Stan Wawrinka also won.

The last Italian before Fognini was Nicola Pietrangeli in 1968.

The 85-year-old Pietrangeli, a two-time French Open winner, stood and applauded as Fognini dropped to his knees to kiss the surface.

Pietrangeli walked gingerly onto the court and the pair hugged. Pietrangeli posed alongside Fognini as he held the trophy

The match started evenly enough, but Fognini broke for a 4-2 lead when Lajovic made an unforced error on forehand. Fognini then held his serve with a typically flamboyant one-handed, cross-court backhand to take control.

Serving for the set, Fognini saved a break point with a forehand winner down the line, and then clinched it with an equally good backhand.

Fognini broke for a 3-2 lead in the second set when Lajovic hit a forehand wide.

After Fognini’s medical timeout, Lajovic missed an easy smash at 30-30 in the next game.

With that miss, his slim hopes faded.

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/apf-Tennis and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Fed Cup: Stephens pulls U.S. even with Swiss after Keys upset

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SAN ANTONIO — Sloane Stephens beat Timea Bacsinzsky after Viktorija Golubic upset Madison Keys in straight sets Saturday, leaving the United States and Switzerland tied 1-1 in their Fed Cup World Group playoff.

Stephens, the No. 8 player in the world, won 6-4, 6-3 on the hard court inside Freeman Coliseum. Her win for the Americans was crucial after the 80th-ranked Golubic was in control throughout in a 6-2, 6-3 victory over the No. 14 Keys.

Stephens is scheduled to play Golubic on Sunday, followed by Keys against Bacsinzsky. If necessary, Sophia Kenin and Jessica Pegula of the United States would play Ylena In-Albon and Conny Perrin in doubles.

The winning team moves to the 2020 World Group draw. The losing team is relegated to World Group II next season.

Stephens came back from deficits of 3-1 in the first set and 2-0 in the second against Bacsinzsky.

Stephens broke Bacsinzky in the seventh game of the second set to take the lead, and Bacsinzky became error prone after she was called for a questionable double hit in the eighth game.

In the first match, Keys made 47 unforced errors and was 0 for 4 on break points against the soft serving Golubic.

Golubic broke Keys twice in the first set and never let her wrest the momentum after dropping the first game of the second. With the score 3-3, Golubic rallied from down 40-15 in the seventh game to break Keys, who dropped to 4-5 in Fed Cup singles matches.

The Americans have won all eight meetings against Switzerland in Fed Cup play.