Al Horford

Al Horford: Canada the team to beat in Olympic qualifying

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At this summer’s FIBA Americas, a nation that has not reached an Olympic men’s basketball tournament in more than a decade will almost surely qualify for Rio 2016.

The two finalists at FIBA Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, will be part of a 12-team 2016 Olympic field.

The U.S. clinched a spot in the Rio Olympics by winning the 2014 World Cup and does not have to play at FIBA Americas.

Brazil, as host nation, is likely to earn automatic entry into the Olympic tournament, too, though that decision hasn’t been made yet.

That leaves Argentina as the only other nation in the Americas to have qualified for either of the last two Olympics. But even if Argentina wins FIBA Americas in September, the other finalist would also go to Rio.

That’s a big opportunity for Puerto Rico (last in the Olympics in 2004), Canada (last in the Olympics in 2000), Mexico (last in the Olympics in 1976) and the Dominican Republic, which has never been to the Games and lost three winner-goes-to-London contests in 2012 Olympic qualifying.

Al Horford led the Dominican Republic to the semifinals of the 2011 FIBA Americas against Brazil, with the winner clinching an Olympic berth. Brazil prevailed, 83-76.

Horford and the Dominican Republic then went to a last-chance global Olympic qualifying tournament in Venezuela, less than a month before the London Games. The top three nations there clinched Olympic berths.

The Dominican Republic, then with John Calipari coaching, lost its semifinal to Lithuania and its third-place game to Nigeria.

“We were close, we won a couple good games there, but we couldn’t get to that next level,” Horford said while in New York for the NBA All-Star Game last week. “It’s a great opportunity, what’s ahead.”

Horford hasn’t yet committed to playing in this year’s FIBA Americas, choosing to focus on his Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks’ season for now. The NBA Finals are in June. FIBA Americas starts Aug. 25 and ends Sept. 6. The Hawks’ preseason training camp began on Sept. 30 last year.

The Dominican Republic has never qualified for an Olympic men’s basketball tournament, but the hopes are high this time around. Not only is the qualifying path easier, but the team may also be stronger.

Without Horford, the Dominican Republic was one of five Americas nations to reach the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup (U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Mexico).

Its World Cup roster included recognizable college basketball names from the previous decade — Francisco Garcia and Edgar Sosa (Louisville) and Eloy Vargas (Kentucky). It did not include NBA veteran Charlie Villanueva, who played at the 2011 FIBA Americas with Horford.

Horford sees Canada as the team to beat at FIBA Americas, though.

“They should definitely be, probably, the favorite, honestly,” Horford said last week.

Canada, under the tutelage of general manager Steve Nash, could earn its first trip to the Olympics since 2000 (when Nash played).

Canada was sixth at each of the last two FIBA Americas, failing to qualify for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, but it has a wealth of young talent, including the last two No. 1 picks in the NBA Draft — Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins – as well as 2014 first-round picks Nik Stauskas and Tyler Ennis and NBA big men Tristan Thompson and Kelly Olynyk.

Three takeaways from World Alpine Skiing Championships

Gregorio Paltrinieri swims second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history

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Olympic champion Gregorio Paltrinieri swam the second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history, clocking 14:33.10 in his native Italy on Thursday.

Paltrinieri, 25, missed Chinese Sun Yang‘s world record from the 2012 Olympics by 2.08 seconds.

The Italian now owns the second- and third-fastest times in history, including his 14:34.10 from the 2016 European Championships, also held at the 2012 Olympic pool in London.

Paltrinieri is a versatile distance swimmer. At last year’s world championships, he finished sixth in the open-water 10km to qualify for the Olympics, then won the 800m free in the pool in a European record time and finished with 1500m bronze, just missing a third straight world title in that event.

German Florian Wellbrock won the 1500m in 14:36.54 at worlds, with Paltrinieri finishing 2.21 seconds back.

Sun, 28, was in February banned eight years stemming from destroying a drug-test sample with a hammer in September 2018. Sun, who focused more on the 200m and 400m frees in recent years, did not race the 1500m at the 2017 or 2019 Worlds.

Top-level swim meets in the U.S. are scheduled to resume in November with the Tyr Pro Series.

MORE: Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15

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Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

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Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

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