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Naomi Osaka wins Australian Open for 2nd major, top ranking

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MELBOURNE, Australia — So close to victory, Naomi Osaka suddenly was letting the Australian Open final slip away. Three championship points? Gone. A sizable lead? Soon all gone, too.

She was playing poorly. She yelled at herself. Slammed a ball. Tugged at her visor’s pink brim. Trudged to the locker room between sets with a towel draped over her head.

And then, after returning to the court, Osaka turned it all around just as quickly as she had dropped 23 of 27 points. Refocusing and reasserting herself, Osaka edged Petra Kvitova 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 on Saturday night to win the Australian Open for a second consecutive Grand Slam title.

“I felt like I didn’t want to have any regrets,” Osaka said. “I think if I didn’t regroup after the second set, then I would have looked back on this match and probably cried or something.”

On top of that, Osaka will rise to No. 1 in the rankings.

“Amazing achievement,” two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova said. “Definitely she is a great one. We’ll see what the future will bring.”

Osaka added the Australian Open trophy to the one she collected in a U.S. Open final last September that forever will be remembered for the way runner-up Serena Williams was docked a game after arguing with the chair umpire.

Unlike that day, there was no jeering from the confused crowd. No controversy. No chaos. No sharing the spotlight.

Clearly marking herself as tennis’ bright new star, Osaka is the first woman to win two major championships in a row since Williams picked up four straight in 2014-15.

Almost didn’t happen.

Osaka held three match points in the second set at 5-3, love-40 as Kvitova served. But Osaka couldn’t close it out. Instead, she completely lost her way.

That allowed Kvitova to come back and make a match of it, reeling off five games in a row to take the second set and go up 1-0 in the third.

At that point, Kvitova would say later, she figured it was going to keep going her way.

“In the end,” she said, “it wasn’t.”

After Kvitova double-faulted to offer up a break point at 1-all, Osaka converted it with a cross-court backhand winner. There was still more work to be done, of course, and some additional drama when it began raining at the changeover right before Osaka tried to serve for the match at 5-4 in the third set.

This time, Osaka would not falter. She would not let this lead disappear.

“I knew that Petra couldn’t keep it up for that long if Naomi could just manage those emotions,” said Osaka’s coach, Sascha Bajin, “and she did that beautifully.”

Osaka was born in Japan — her mother is Japanese, her father is Haitian — and she moved to New York at age 3. Now she’s based in Florida and has dual citizenship. Osaka already was the first player representing Japan — female or male — to win a Grand Slam singles title. Now she also is the first to top the WTA or ATP rankings.

At 21, Osaka is the youngest No. 1 in nearly a decade; Caroline Wozniacki was 20 when she first ascended to that spot in 2010.

And to think, a year ago, Osaka was ranked 72nd.

What a climb. What a quick climb.

Kvitova was playing in her first Grand Slam final since winning Wimbledon in 2014 — and the first since she was stabbed in the hand by an intruder at her home in the Czech Republic a little more than two years ago.

Kvitova needed surgery, missed the first 4½ months of the 2017 season, including the Australian Open, and couldn’t be sure she’d ever get back to the top of tennis.

“You’ve been through so much,” Osaka told Kvitova during the trophy ceremony. “I’m really honored to have played you in the final of a Grand Slam.”

On a somewhat cloudy, rather comfortable evening, with only a slight breeze and the temperature around 75 degrees (25 Celsius), both women hit the ball as hard as can be. Exchanges were mostly at the baseline and filled with flat, powerful groundstrokes that barely cleared the net and made retrieving and replying as much about reflexes as anything.

Here’s one measure of how even it was: Each finished with 33 winners.

Points were swift and blunt; of 86 in the first set, only four lasted nine strokes or more. There was plenty of strong serving, clean hitting and good movement.

It was Osaka who was the first to get ahead, tearing through the tiebreaker by grabbing five points in a row — four via winners — to go up 5-1. When Kvitova sailed a backhand wide moments later, ceding a set for the first time all tournament, Osaka pumped her fist and screamed, “Come on!”

How pivotal was that moment? Kvitova had won her last 22 Grand Slam matches after winning the first set. Osaka, meanwhile, entered the day having won 59 matches anywhere after going up by a set.

When Osaka broke to lead 3-2 in the second set, and then got to 5-3, the outcome seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Turned out, that wasn’t the case. Not at all.

All that really matters, of course, is that Osaka righted herself in time to win.

“It didn’t really take that long,” she said. “I didn’t have a choice.”

Andy Murray out in first round of Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — If this was it for Andy Murray, if this truly was it, he gave himself – and an appreciative, raucous crowd that included his mother and brother – quite a gutsy goodbye, the type of never-give-in performance he’s famous for.

What Murray could not quite do Monday at the Australian Open was finish off a stirring comeback and prolong what might just be the final tournament of his career.

Playing on a surgically repaired right hip so painful that pulling on socks is a chore, he summoned the strength and strokes to erase a big deficit and force a fifth set before eventually succumbing to 22nd-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-2, Murray’s first opening-round loss at a Grand Slam tournament in 11 years.

“If today was my last match, look, it was a brilliant way to finish,” Murray said. “I literally gave everything that I had on the court, fought as best as I could, and performed a lot better than what I should have done with the amount I’ve been able to practice and train.”

Murray, just 31, is a year removed from his operation, and he said that he will decide in the next week or so whether to have a second one. If opts to avoid another procedure, he might be able to play in July at Wimbledon, where he won two of his three major titles, including the first for a British man in 77 years. If he decides for further surgery, then Monday’s match might have been his last.

Even with a hitch in his gait, even as he leaned forward to rest his hands on his knees between points, Murray summoned the strength and the strokes to push the match beyond the 4-hour mark.

And the fans tried to will him past Bautista Agut, who had lost in straight sets all three previous matches the two men had played.

They roared when Murray managed to break back to 2-all on the way to taking the third set, with his mom, Judy, smiling widely as she stood alongside other spectators.

They chanted his name when he grabbed the fourth set.

They rose when the compelling contest ended.

“Andy deserves this atmosphere. Andy deserves (that) all the people came to watch him,” Bautista Agut said. “He’s a tough, tough fighter. A tough opponent. He gives everything until the last point. I want to congratulate him for all he did for tennis.”

Afterward, a video was shown in the stadium with tributes to Murray from various players, including rivals Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, along with Nick Kyrgios, Caroline Wozniacki, Karolina Pliskova and Sloane Stephens.

“Amazing career. Congratulations, buddy,” Federer said. “I’m your biggest fan.”

Federer opened his bid for a third consecutive Australian Open championship, and record seventh overall, with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Denis Istomin at Rod Laver Arena. Nadal, whose 17 career majors are second among men only to Federer’s 20, overpowered Australian wild-card entry James Duckworth 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 earlier.

Nadal, who had surgery on his right ankle in November, hadn’t competed since stopping during his U.S. Open semifinal in September because of a bad knee.

“It’s very difficult to start (again) after an injury,” Nadal said. “I know it very well.”

Other major title winners who advanced on Day 1, when the temperature approached 90 degrees (33 Celsius), included defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova – who beat Harriet Dart 6-0, 6-0 – Angelique Kerber, Sloane Stephens and Petra Kvitova.

The highest-seeded player to exit was No. 9 John Isner, who hit 47 aces but lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (6), 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5) against 97th-ranked Reilly Opelka in an all-American match.

The most attention, though, was drawn by Murray, who is as popular for his success on the court as his attitude away from it.

The stands were dotted with British and Scottish flags and with signs of support. When Bautista Agut entered, he was greeted by a smattering of polite applause. When Murray was introduced, there were full-throated screams, followed by chants of his first name.

As play began, Murray delighted his well-wishers every so often with terrific shots on a full sprint and his trademark, quick-reflex returns. When he flubbed a shot or otherwise let a point slide by, Murray displayed the muttering and leg-slapping self-contempt the world has come to know and expect – and, let’s face it, love – from the guy.

For all that Murray accomplished over the years, including reaching No. 1 in the rankings and a pair of Olympic singles gold medals, he never was able to leave Melbourne with the trophy, finishing as the runner-up five times.

When Murray eventually succumbed to his weariness – not to mention Bautista Agut – the arena speakers blared Queen’s “We are the Champions,” with its fitting line: “And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end.”

If this was, indeed, the end, Murray did just that.

“I’d be OK,” he said, “with that being my last match.”

2016 champ Kerber into 2nd round, extends streak to 10 wins

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Former champion Angelique Kerber continued her resurgent run with a 6-0, 6-4 win over fellow German Anna-Lena Friedsam to reach the second round of the Australian Open.

Kerber raced through the first set in 17 minutes Tuesday but had her struggles in the second and was broken twice before converting her second match point and extending her streak to 10 consecutive wins.

She opened the year by winning four singles matches at the Hopman Cup, where Germany lost the final to Switzerland, and won the Sydney International last week for her first title since the 2016 U.S. Open.

Kerber made her major breakthrough two years ago in Australia, where she beat Serena Williams in the final, and went on to reach the Wimbledon final and win the U.S. Open in a year when she rose to No. 1.

Her ranking slid into the 20s in 2017, but she’s coming back into the kind of form which makes her a title contender at Melbourne Park. She and Maria Sharapova are the only former Australian Open champions in the women’s draw.

“I’m just enjoying it on court again,” Kerber said. “Something is going on with Australia and me. I love this country – I enjoy my stay, play my best tennis.

“The year starts good – I’m just hoping to continue this.”

Kerber will celebrate her 30th birthday on Thursday, when she has a second-round match against either Nao Habino or Donna Vekic.

No. 9 Johanna Konta beat Madison Brengle 6-3, 6-1, handing the U.S. a 10th loss in 11 first-round women’s matches.

The first-round upsets included Venus Williams, U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens and CoCo Vandeweghe, a semifinalist here and at the U.S. Open last year.

“It’s a testament to how many great first- and second-round matches we have,” Konta said of the early upsets. “Shows how much depth we have in the women’s game right now.”

Konta will next meet Bernarda Pera, a lucky loser in the qualifying tournament who registered the second win by an American woman at the tournament when she beat Russian qualifier Anna Blinkova 6-2, 6-2.

No. 20 Barbora Strycova’s 6-1, 7-5 win over wild-card entry Kristie Ahn made it 2-12 for the U.S. women with two yet to play.

Former No. 1-ranked Karolina Pliskova, the 2016 U.S. Open finalist, opened with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Veronica Cepede Royg, No. 8 Caroline Garcia beat Carina Witthoft 7-5, 6-3 and No. 29 Lucie Safarova defeated Ajla Tomljanovic 7-5, 6-3.

Fernando Verdasco, a semifinalist here in 2009, had a 6-1, 7-5, 7-5 win over No. 20 and fellow Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut.

Defending champion Roger Federer had a night match against Aljaz Bedene.

More AP coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/AustralianOpen