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Osaka set for showdown against Stephens at WTA Finals

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SINGAPORE — Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens, the last two U.S. Open champions, will make their career debuts at the WTA Finals by playing each other in their first match in Singapore on Monday.

The initial stage of the eight-player WTA Finals field is a round-robin competition with two teams of four players. The two players with the best record from each round-robin group advance to next Saturday’s semifinals.

It’s been a whirlwind six weeks for Osaka, a dual Japanese-American citizen who plays under the Japanese flag, since winning the U.S. Open.

Her Open victory – the second title of her career with the first coming at Indian Wells in April – was marred by controversy as opponent Serena Williams initiated a number of run-ins with umpire Carlos Ramos during the match.

“For me, I think I’m playing tournament after tournament, so I don’t really have time to think about, like, my life changing or anything,” said Osaka, of her new celebrity status. “So, yeah, I feel like I would need the year to end to maybe process more.

“I mean, with the recognition part, I do feel a bit different,” she added. “Like before it was only Japan I felt like people know me. But now like even here, I guess this is Asia, too, though, so it doesn’t really count, but like in the airports and stuff. I just think that that’s kind of funny.”

Stephens, 25, who won the U.S. Open in 2017, is looking forward to this second outing against Osaka. She won their first meeting in the 2016 Acapulco quarterfinals in straight sets.

“I think it will be super fun and it’s a great matchup,” Stephens said. “Obviously everyone works all year long to get here. It’s my debut here as well as hers, so it’s new territory for both of us. We both have had amazing accomplishments so we’ll be looking forward to the match and we’ll see what happens.”

Both are hoping they handle this new experience of qualifying for the year-end tournament with ease.

For Stephens, the biggest concern is adjusting to the unfamiliar round-robin format.

“I haven’t played a round-robin since I started playing tennis at Sierra Sport and Racquet Club, and you had to play the round robin to advance in your ladder,” Stephens said. “Yeah, I was, like, 10. So I’m really not sure how it works. But I think you just play and try to win and whatever happens happens.”

Osaka is hoping that just being part of the WTA Finals won’t give her the jitters.

“I hope I don’t get overwhelmed,” Osaka said. “You never really know how you’re gonna feel until you’re in that moment. So I can only hope that I’ll play well and I won’t get, like, nervous or anything, which I’m sure I will, but I feel like that’s all part of the process.”

The two join Angelique Kerber, the reigning Wimbledon champion, and Kiki Bertens, who qualified for the tournament when No. 1 Simona Halep withdrew with a herniated disc in her back, in the Red Group. Kerber and Bertens play Monday’s second scheduled match.

The competition gets under way with White Group action on Sunday.

Petra Kvitova, the 2011 WTA Finals champion, will play Elina Svitolina, who debuted here last year, in the opening match. Caroline Wozniacki, the defending champion, faces Karolina Pliskova, making a third consecutive appearance here, in the second match.

Despite not being able to play here, Halep is in Singapore and received the WTA Player of the Year award at the black-tie WTA Finals Gala on Friday night. The Romanian won her first Grand Slam title at this year’s French Open and was an Australian Open finalist.

“Winning a Grand Slam and finishing No. 1, I think it’s the most that I could ask for,” Halep said. “I had also tough moments, because Melbourne, it was really tough to get over and to come back stronger.

“I’m proud that I could come back stronger and I could make a better result. So I think definitely, actually, is the best year of my career.”

Sloane Stephens wins opener in Cincinnati

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MASON, Ohio — Defending U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens overcame a thumb injury to cruise into the third round of the Western & Southern Open with a 6-3, 6-2 win over qualifier Tatjana Maria on Wednesday.

A trainer applied a bandage to the third-seeded Stephens’ right thumb between the third and fourth games of the second set of this U.S. Open tuneup. The match was Stephens’ first since losing on Sunday to Simona Halep in the finals at Montreal.

Sloane’s semifinal appearance last season is her best Cincinnati finish in six previous appearances.

With 11th French, Nadal not obsessed with Federer’s 20 Slams

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PARIS (AP) Rafael Nadal’s 11th French Open title raised his Grand Slam trophy count to 17, three away from the men’s record held by Roger Federer.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Nadal is fixated on catching his rival.

“Of course I would love to have 20, like Roger, in the future – or even more,” Nadal said Sunday evening after beating Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in the final at Roland Garros, “but being honest, (it’s) something that is not in my mind.”

He added that it’s not an “obsession.”

“Let me enjoy this title,” Nadal said. “I can’t be always thinking of more. Of course, I have ambition. Of course, I have passion for what I am doing. But I never have been crazy about all this kind of stuff. No, you can’t be frustrated always if somebody has more money than you, if somebody have a bigger house than you, if somebody have more Grand Slams than you. You can’t live with that feeling, no?”

Nadal’s uncle, Toni, who used to also be his coach, attended Sunday’s match and was asked afterward whether Rafael can pull even with Federer.

“I want to think that is possible,” Toni said. “But I know (that) maybe in one month, Federer will win again Wimbledon.”

Federer, of course, sat out the French Open to rest and prepare for the grass-court season. He did the same a year ago, and then went on to claim his record eighth championship at the All England Club, where play begins July 2.

The only man with more titles at a single major is Nadal in Paris. He is now 86-2 at the French Open – and, by the looks of things, as good as ever at the place.

Here are other things we learned at the 2018 French Open:

HALEP CAN WIN THE BIG ONE

After losing her first three Grand Slam finals, Simona Halep added major championship No. 1 to her No. 1 ranking by coming back to defeat Sloane Stephens in three sets. Halep kept insisting she needed to do it, and could do it – and she was correct. “Now she can relax, go out there, let her game go,” said her coach, Darren Cahill.

SERENA STILL SUPERB

At her first major in 16 months, and first as a mother, Serena Williams showed with three victories that she still has the game and the grit to go far and – even at age 36 – could be a threat to add to her 23 major titles. She withdrew from the field before her much-anticipated fourth-rounder against Maria Sharapova, citing a chest muscle injury, so it’s not clear whether Williams will be someone to watch at Wimbledon.

NOT THEIR TIME YET

Runner-up Thiem, a 24-year-old from Austria, might very well be the second-best player on clay in the world, but there’s still a large gap, at least at Roland Garros, where he is 0-3 against Nadal. Thiem and the man he beat in the quarterfinals, 21-year-old Alexander Zverev of Germany, are the two most well-rounded rising stars in the game. The question is when each will be ready for the next step.

AMERICAN WOMEN

Before her loss to Halep, Stephens, 25, eliminated Madison Keys, 23, in the first all-American semifinal at the French Open since 2002, when Williams defeated Jennifer Capriati. “All in all,” Stephens said, “I don’t think anyone can complain.” It was also a rematch of last year’s U.S. Open final, in which Stephens topped Keys. For all the hand-wringing in years past over what would happen to U.S. women’s tennis after the Williams sisters, they seem to be in pretty good shape. Plus, consider this: Coco Gauff, a 14-year-old from Florida, beat Caty McNally, a 16-year-old from Ohio, in the junior final, the fourth time at the last five Grand Slam tournaments that two Americans played each other for the girls’ title.

DON’T LEAVE!

One important lesson from this French Open: If you fail to make it out of qualifying, do not skip town. Thanks to a new rule that awards some prize money to players making late injury withdrawals, more than a half-dozen men got into the draw as a “lucky loser” to replace those who pulled out. None of the beneficiaries was more celebrated than 190th-ranked Marco Trungelliti. He headed home to Barcelona after being beaten in qualifying, then learned he could sign up for a spot in the field. So he made the 10-hour drive back to Paris with his 88-year-old grandmother, mother and younger brother in a rental car, then went out and won in the first round.

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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