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Djokovic wins in return to Indian Wells after 5-year absence; Coco Gauff rallies to avoid early exit

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) — Novak Djokovic made a winning return to the desert, beating Aleksandar Vukic 6-2, 5-7, 6-3 on Saturday in his first match at the BNP Paribas Open in five years.

The 24-time Grand Slam singles champion joined Rafael Nadal as the only players to win 400 matches in ATP Masters 1000 series events. The top-ranked Djokovic is a five-time champion at Indian Wells, tied with Roger Federer for most by a male, but hadn't played in the event since 2019.

“Five years is quite a long time for a professional tennis player, but at the same time playing here the last time in 2019 felt like yesterday,” Djokovic said. “I connected with the crowd and everyone I haven’t seen in five years very quickly"

Coco Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka also won — barely — rallying to win their opening matches in third-set tiebreakers.

Gauff edged Clara Burel 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4). The U.S. Open women's champion trailed 4-0 and then 5-2 in the third set, leaving her a game away from becoming the second top American upset by Burel this year. The No. 47-ranked player from France beat No. 5 Jessica Pegula in the second round of the Australian Open.

Sabalenka, the two-time Australian Open champion who lost to Gauff in the final at Flushing Meadows, fought off four match points before outlasting American Peyton Stearns 6-7 (2), 6-2, 7-6 (6).

The No. 2 seed will face Emma Raducanu, the 2021 U.S. Open women’s champion who reached the third round when No. 30-seeded Dayana Yastremska had to retire after Raducanu had taken a 4-0 lead.

The third-seeded Gauff advanced to face Lucia Bronzetti in the third round. The Italian knocked off No. 32 Anhelina Kalinina 6-3, 6-4.

But Pegula was eliminated in the second round again Saturday, with Anna Blinkova of Russia beating her 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

Naomi Osaka knocked out another seeded player, ousting No. 14 Liudmila Samsonova of Russia, 7-5, 6-3. The four-time Grand Slam champion who returned to competition this year after giving birth won the 2018 BNP Paribas title. She will next face No. 24 Elise Mertens.

No. 27 Victoria Azarenka, who won the event twice, was upset by American Caroline Dolehide 7-5, 2-6, 6-3.

Djokovic avoided an upset by pulling away from the No. 69-ranked Vukic in the third set of his first match since falling to Jannik Sinner in the semifinals of the Australian Open.

Djokovic won Masters 1000 titles last year at Cincinnati and Paris, but couldn't play in the first two of the year in Indian Wells and Miami, still prevented at the time from traveling to the U.S. as a foreigner who was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

He won in the desert in 2008 and 2011, then three straight times from 2014-16. The 36-year-old from Serbia is 400-86 in ATP Masters 1000 events. Nadal, who withdrew just before the event, has 406 victories in the nine tournaments at the level below the Grand Slams.

In late matches, fourth-seeded Daniil Medvedev beat Roberto Carballes Baena 6-2, 6-3, and Gael Monfils topped eighth-seeded Hubert Hurkacz 6-0, 7-6 (5), 6-2,

No. 12 Taylor Fritz and No. 28 Cam Norrie, both past champions at Indian Wells, moved into the third round along with No. 13 Grigor Dmitrov. No. 14 Ugo Humbert and No. 21 Adrian Mannarino both advanced, while Arthur Fils, another Frenchman, ousted No. 23 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 6-3, 6-4.

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis