Chris Froome ups Tour de France lead ahead of crucial climb (video)

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Chris Froome‘s lead in the Tour de France increased slightly as his closest challenger, Italian Fabio Aru, dropped to fourth place overall in Wednesday’s penultimate mountain stage in the Alps.

“We’re in a brilliant position,” Froome said on NBCSN.

Froome, eyeing his fourth Tour title in five years, led by 18 seconds over Aru going into Wednesday in the closest Tour de France in history.

But Aru struggled in Stage 17 and crossed 31 seconds behind Froome, fading over the final climb and failing to claw back on the descent to the finish.

Froome goes into Thursday’s crucial summit finish with a 27-second lead over Colombian Rigoberto Uran and Frenchman Romain Bardet. Aru is 53 seconds behind when counting Froome’s time bonus for finishing third overall Wednesday.

Primoz Roglic became the first Slovenian to win a Tour de France stage Wednesday. The former junior ski jumper won by 73 seconds ahead of the Froome-Uran-Bardet group.

Uran and Bardet, both chasing their first Tour titles, must snatch the yellow jersey from Froome either Thursday or in Saturday’s short, 14-mile individual time trial before Sunday’s traditionally ceremonial ride into Paris.

“I suddenly felt like I had much better legs than I had a week ago in the Pyrenees,” Froome said. “If that’s anything to go by, I’m confident in tomorrow.”

TOUR: Results/Standings | Highlights | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Wednesday, green jersey leader Marcel Kittel crashed and abandoned.

Michael Matthews inherits the sprinters’ green jersey and should wear it through the end of the Tour, becoming the first Australian to do so since the last of Robbie McEwen‘s three titles in 2006.

Thursday’s Stage 18 features three categorized climbs, including the nine-mile, beyond-category Col d’Izoard at the finish.

NBC Sports Gold coverage starts at 6:40 a.m. ET, with NBCSN coming on air at 7 a.m.

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MORE: 10 Tour de France riders to watch

Chris Froome wins Giro d’Italia, is 3rd cyclist to hold all three Grand Tours

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Chris Froome joined Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault as the only cyclists to hold all three Grand Tour titles at once, wrapping up his first Giro d’Italia on the ceremonial ride into Rome on Sunday.

Froome, a 33-year-old, Kenyan-born, South African-raised Brit, also became the seventh rider to win all three Grand Tours in a career, joining Merckx, Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali.

Froome has won four Tours de France (2013, 2015-17) and claimed his first Vuelta a España in September. He also owns two Olympic bronze medals and a world championships bronze medal.

Froome all but clinched the Giro title in Friday’s 19th stage. With an audacious solo attack up the Colle delle Finestre, the three-week stage race’s highest climb, he went from three minutes down to three minutes up in the standings, taking the pink leader’s jersey for the first time in his career.

“I had some very, very tough moments, so to come back and win yesterday and defend the jersey [Saturday] is very, very special,” Froome said Saturday. “This was the biggest battle of my career.”

GIRO: Overall Standings

Froome raced the Giro for the first time since 2010, when he was a relative nobody in the sport and disqualified for holding onto a motorbike, also during stage 19.

Froome could become the first rider to notch the arduous Giro-Tour de France double in the same year since Italian Marco Pantani in 1998. That is, if he even starts the Tour in a little over a month.

In December, Froome was ordered to explain to the International Cycling Union (UCI) why a urine sample he provided at the Vuelta showed a concentration of the asthma drug salbutamol that was twice the permitted level. It remains unclear when the UCI will rule on the case.

“I know inside that I didn’t do anything wrong,” Froome said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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VIDEO: 17-year-old runs 3:52 mile at Pre Classic

Venus Williams, defending champion upset on first day of French Open

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PARIS (AP) — Venus Williams and defending champion Jelena Ostapenko are out of the French Open on the opening day.

Williams, the 2002 runner-up and ninth-seeded American, lost 6-4, 7-5 to Wang Qiang of China in the first round on Court Suzanne Lenglen on Sunday.

Wang avenged her loss to Williams in the first round at Roland Garros last year. The 85th-ranked player was also beaten by Williams at Wimbledon a few weeks later and had never beaten Williams before Sunday.

It’s the fourth time Williams exits the French Open in the first round in 21 appearances. She also lost in the first round at the Australian Open in January.

The Latvian Ostapenko, whose 2017 title at Roland Garros was her first on the WTA Tour, was bounced by Ukrainian Kateryna Kozlova 7-5, 6-3. She became the first French Open women’s champion to lose in the first round the following year since Russian Anastasia Myskina in 2005.

Reigning U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens needed less than an hour to move into the second round.

The 10th-seeded Stephens advanced with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands. It was Stephens’ first win at a Grand Slam tournament since claiming her first major title in New York last September.

“I tried to do way more than I should have after the U.S. Open, and I should have just shut it down,” Stephens said when asked about her poor recent results. “My heart was there but my body wasn’t. So when the two things aren’t connected, it’s never a good thing.”

The American, who lost in the first round at the Australian Open in January, hit 17 winners and spent just 49 minutes on court on Day 1 in Paris. Rus was in the first round as a “lucky loser.”

On a sunny and warm day, Stephens was joined in the second round by fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina, who defeated Ajla Tomljanovic, 7-5, 6-3 after recovering from a 5-1 deficit in the opening set.

In the men’s draw, fourth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov found out about his opponent around 30 minutes before stepping onto Court Philippe Chatrier but had no problem adapting to the situation.

Dimitrov, a semifinalist at Monte Carlo this season, was slated to play Viktor Troicki but instead faced Mohamed Safwat of Egypt because Troicki withdrew with pain in his back. Dimitrov hit 31 winners and prevailed 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (1).

“I just needed, like, five, ten minutes to disconnect from what I had in mind to play and what I wanted to do and kind of look at the few videos of the way he was playing,” Dimitrov said. “After that, I just had to go out and do the best that I can. I think it was a good start.”

Safwat, the first Egyptian man to compete at a Grand Slam since Tamer El Sawy at the 1996 US Open, was cheered off the court.

Gael Monfils, one of six Frenchmen in action on Sunday, overcame a slow start and an upset stomach and headache to advance by defeating compatriot and wild card Elliot Benchetrit. Monfils won 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-1.

“I was stressed and even sick at the beginning,” Monfils said. “Then experience played in my favor.”

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FRENCH OPEN: TV/Stream Schedule | ScoresMen’s Draw (PDF) | Women’s Draw