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Nadal unsure how Monte Carlo return will go

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MONACO — Rafael Nadal is unsure how his latest injury return will go this week, even though it will be on the clay-court king’s favorite surface.

The second-ranked Spaniard is coming back at the Monte Carlo Masters, a tournament he has won a record 11 times along with the French Open and Barcelona.

“It has been a tough year and a half for me, so it’s tough to have a clear view about how I am,” Nadal said Monday at the French Riviera tournament, where he plays Spanish countryman Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round on Wednesday.

“I had too many stops; I didn’t find a way to play three weeks in a row without problems. So it has been hard for me. When you have these things going on, on the mental side it’s up and down. It’s always like a comeback.”

Even Toni Nadal, his uncle and former coach, was skeptical about Nadal’s long-term future in tennis in an interview with El Pais last month.

“Rafael wants to continue playing, despite his physical problems,” Toni said. “That is what will continue to be decisive. Until when, who knows? Maybe two or three more years. What I’m saying is that Rafael is not a tennis player, he’s an injured person who plays tennis.”

Responding on Monday, the 32-year-old Nadal said his uncle had apologized for the comments.

“He came to the court and felt sorry for that. Toni wanted to say it in a positive way because of course I had many issues,” Nadal said. “Toni has conferences for companies every week. So when you talk a lot, sometimes you make some mistakes.”

Bautista Agut beat top-ranked Novak Djokovic at the Miami Open last month – where Nadal did not play. His troublesome right knee had flared up again the previous tournament, forcing him to pull out of his semifinal against Roger Federer at Indian Wells.

Nadal resumed practice two weeks ago and his knee is holding up.

“My knee is quite good. Happy for that. Now I need to work on the tennis,” he said. “I hope the competition puts me in the rhythm I need.”

Nadal usually finds his rhythm quicker than anyone on clay.

Last year, he missed February and March after retiring in the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal against Marin Cilic with a hip injury.

However, it did not stop him reeling off 14 straight wins on clay without dropping a set – winning two Davis Cup matches, the Monte Carlo and Barcelona titles before Dominic Thiem stopped him in the Madrid Masters quarterfinals.

Nadal went on to win the Rome Masters and French Open and reached the Wimbledon semifinals on grass, losing an epic five-setter to Djokovic.

Then his body let him down, again.

After retiring from the U.S. Open semifinals against Juan Martin del Potro because of a right knee injury, he did not play again last season – pulling out of the Paris Masters and the season-ending ATP Finals with an abdominal problem.

“I don’t like to talk about frustration,” Nadal said. “Because life has been too good to me to be frustrated.”

Nadal has won more than $100 million in prize money and 80 titles, including a record 33 Masters events. His tally of 17 Grand Slams is second to Federer’s 20.

But nagging doubts persist.

“At some point, even if I appreciate everything this sport has given to me, sometimes it’s tough to accept when you have problems in a row,” he said. “Since the beginning of the season again it has been tough. You need to be strong mentally and keep the passion very high.”

But Nadal did manage a lighter note about his uncle’s “overdramatic” prognosis.

“Being No. 2 in the world, it is maybe difficult to be where I am being an injured person,” Nadal said, smiling. “I have more problems than almost the rest of my competitors, but I was able to manage it well all my life.”

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.

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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.