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Rival players support seeding Serena Williams at French Open

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ROME – Several of Serena Williams’ biggest rivals believe that the 23-time Grand Slam champion deserves more than just a guaranteed spot in the French Open draw.

Williams, who is expected to play in her first major since returning from maternity leave, should also receive a top seed that befits the No. 1 ranking she held when she left the tour, the players say.

The WTA Tour said it is considering a rule change to add protected seeding for highly-ranked players returning from maternity leave but the earliest that could take effect is next year.

“I would like to see that change,” Maria Sharapova said. “It’s such an incredible effort for a woman to come back from physically, emotionally. … There’s just another whole dimension to the travel, to the experiences, to the emotions to the physicality of every single day.

“Tennis is such a selfish sport but I think when there’s a child in your life you lose a little bit of that, because there’s something that’s so much more important,” added Sharapova, who has lost three Grand Slam finals to Williams. “So yeah, I definitely think that would be a nice change.”

The French Open draw will be made Thursday, with the tournament starting on Sunday.

All Grand Slam events make their own decisions on seeding players, so it’s still possible that Roland Garros will make Williams one of the 32 seeded players even though her current ranking is down to near No. 500.

Otherwise, Williams could be forced to play top-ranked players in the early rounds.

The French tennis federation did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s normal to give birth to a kid. It’s normal to have protected ranking. … It’s more than tennis,” top-ranked Simona Halep said. “So the people will decide what seed she will get. But in my opinion it’s good to protect the ranking when someone is giving birth.”

Williams returned to the tour briefly this year, after a 14-month absence to give birth to her daughter. She was not seeded at tournaments in Indian Wells, California, and Miami, and compiled two wins and two losses.

Williams has recounted the difficulties she faced in childbirth and a pulmonary embolism that made it hard for her to breathe shortly after her daughter was born. But after a period of training, coach Patrick Mouratoglou last week told the WTA tour’s website “Serena will play the French Open to win it.”

Current rules covering maternity leave and injuries allow a protected or “special” ranking to be utilized for entry into tournaments but not for seeding purposes regardless of the reason for a player’s absence.

However, this past year the WTA adjusted the rule so that absences for maternity leave are treated the same as those for injury and illness by providing all players a two-year window to begin using a special ranking, plus an additional year from the date of return to utilize the special ranking.

“Historically, WTA players have not been supportive of the use of special rankings for seeding purposes,” the WTA said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The rule is currently under further review as part of our 2019 rules process. We remain committed to evolving with the needs of our players and are very supportive of those players returning from maternity leave to the tour.”

Fourth-ranked Elina Svitolina, who defended her Italian Open title on Sunday, was also supportive of seeding Williams.

“If you’re like finished or you stopped because you’re going to have a child and you will be in top eight, I think you should have this kind of thing, to have protected seeding,” Svitolina said. “She was No. 1 so she deserves seeding.”

William has won the French Open three times – more than any current player – and last year’s Roland Garros champion, Jelena Ostapenko, is looking forward to her return.

“She’s someone who the tour was missing – because she’s a great champion,” Ostapenko said. “She was my idol since I was growing up.”

AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington and AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed.

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Belmont distance, fatigue test Justify in Triple Crown bid

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BALTIMORE (AP) Justify keeps showing something new each time he races.

In the Kentucky Derby, he showed he could run in the mud in a crowded, 20-horse field. In the Preakness, he showed he could withstand the challenge of a top rival pressing him early and hold off others before the finish line – also in the mud.

For his next trick, he’ll need to show he can endure the grueling 1+-mile Belmont in New York on June 9. And it he does that, Justify will become horse racing the second Triple Crown winner in four years.

“If you’re a superior horse, you can do it,” trainer Bob Baffert said Sunday. “I’ve seen horses go a mile and a half and they never won again. It’s a weird, quirky race, but I don’t see why though he wouldn’t handle it.”

Had the Preakness been another tenth of a mile, a hard-charging Bravazo might’ve passed Justify and ended the Triple Crown bid on Saturday. Bravazo will go to the Belmont where Justify will have plenty of familiar challenges – and a fresh ones – standing in the way of becoming the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown.

In addition to Bravazo, Kentucky Derby horses Hofburg, Vino Rosso and Free Drop Billy and Preakness horse Tenfold are among those likely to challenge Justify in what’s considered the most difficult race on the Triple Crown trail.

Bravazo is “a tough little horse, and I think his pedigree will let him run that far,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “So, we’ll take him on and see what happens.”

Justify’s run in the Kentucky Derby was convincing enough to scare off a few opposing owners and trainers from the Preakness. Given the fatigue of difficult races two weeks apart, they could see Justify as beatable at the Belmont.

Baffert, who had three near-misses with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem before American Pharoah broke the 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015, said Justify is built to power through the fatigue caused by running on the slop twice against high-caliber competition.

“You do hate to keep running on these wet tracks because it does take a little bit out of them,” Baffert said before Justify flew back to Louisville, Kentucky, for some rest and more training. “It can be tough. It’s not as tough on him because he’s a big horse. He can handle it. He was blowing pretty good, he got a good blow out of (the Preakness), but he wasn’t as tired as we thought he was.”

As gassed as Justify looked at the wire in the Preakness , jockey Mike Smith is convinced the undefeated colt could have run longer and picked up the pace if asked. Finishing a half-length ahead of Bravazo made it by far Justify’s closest victory of his five, but it counts just the same.

“Although he got tired (Saturday), he was also looking around a bit at the end,” Smith said. “I certainly could have got after him a whole lot more a lot earlier and made him do a little more, as well.”

Justify has already done more than expected, a bit of a late bloomer who doesn’t have the pedigree of someone like American Pharoah. Baffert went into the year thinking McKinzie gave him a better chance and on Friday recalled thinking of Justify, “The backup horse is pretty good, too.”

Now all eyes are on Justify, who might have one major factor in his favor. His owners and Baffert have connections to Audible, My Boy Jack and Solomini, who ultimately might not be entered in the Belmont because they could threaten Justify’s chances of finishing off the Triple Crown.

Baffert is unsure whether to bring Solomini back from the Derby, though it wouldn’t make much sense to put him in Justify’s way. Baffert is sure about Justify, who looked healthy and that a bruised heel was not an issue in an impressive showing in the mud and fog at the Preakness.

“I’m feeling pretty in awe of the horse,” Baffert said. “I don’t see why not go to the Belmont, as long as he stays like this. He looks good.”

Twelve out of the last 13 times the horse who won the Derby and Preakness lost the Belmont. It’s certainly the test of a champion for a reason, and co-owner Elliott Walden is hoping for the best with three weeks of hype ahead.

“Those things tend to happen the way they’re supposed to happen,” Walden said. “If Justify is meant to do it, it’ll happen. And if not, it just won’t.”

Nadal beats Zverev for Italian Open title

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ROME — Rafael Nadal came out on top in a matchup of this year’s top two clay-court players, beating defending champion Alexander Zverev 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 Sunday to win a record-extending eighth Italian Open title.

Nadal recovered from an early break in the third set after a 50-minute rain delay.

The victory means Nadal will reclaim the No. 1 ranking from Roger Federer on Monday.

Federer is sitting out the clay season to prepare for Wimbledon.

Nadal and Zverev had each won two titles on clay this season entering the final, with Nadal lifting trophies in Monte Carlo and Barcelona and Zverev taking Munich and Madrid.

Nadal improved to 5-0 in his career against Zverev and gained an extra measure of confidence entering the French Open, which starts next Sunday.

Earlier, Elina Svitolina defended the women’s title, facing little resistance from top-ranked Simona Halep in a 6-0, 6-4 win.