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Gary Player to return to Olympics, 60 years after meeting Jesse Owens at Melbourne Games

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BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. — Gary Player plans to be in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics next year as the South Africa golf team captain, and although his sport returns to the Games after a 112-year absence, it won’t be a foreign experience.

Player, who turns 80 on Nov. 1, attended the Melbourne 1956 Olympics when he was 21 years old.

There, he met Jesse Owens, the four-time Berlin 1936 Olympic champion who was at the 1956 Games as a representative of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, according to Owens biographies.

“I was aware that Hitler would not shake his hand, which is hard to believe,” Player recalled Monday while hosting the Gary Player Invitational at GlenArbor Club, an hour outside of New York City. “But with a man like Hitler, anything was beyond one’s comprehension. I remember that, and I remember [Owens] winning, and I saw videos of him winning, and I spoke to him about these things. I was very proud to meet him and to see what he did as a start for change for the black man around the world.”

What did Owens say to Player?

“He said he tried to behave well and to show Hitler the opposite of the thoughts that he had of him, that he just tried to show him that he was well-behaved, he was a good competitor and that he had appreciation for people, which, obviously, Hitler did not have,” Player said.

In 1956, Player was embarking on one of the most impressive golf careers. He won his first professional tournament one year earlier. He played in his first Masters four months after attending the Melbourne Olympics.

“I’ve always held the Olympics in high esteem,” Player said. “It brings people of the world together. My great president, Nelson Mandela, said sport can help change the world, and that’s absolutely true. You’re getting nations that are having wars against each other suddenly competing against each other and realizing, why are we fighting each other? We should all be enjoying each other’s different systems of government and beliefs. So the Olympics are significant in my life.”

MORE: Nelson Mandela’s ties to the Olympics

Player’s role as South Africa Olympic golf team captain won’t be as burdensome as, say, when he was Presidents Cup captain. The South African golf team in Rio will likely consist of no more than four golfers — two men and two women.

“I suppose watching them practice and helping them tune-up a little bit with tiny little things,” Player said. “I’m not a believer in what takes place today, making significant changes in golf swings. We’ve seen how that’s hurt Tiger Woods.”

Woods dropped to No. 321 in the Official World Golf Ranking this week and is extremely unlikely to qualify for the Olympics. He would likely need to be ranked in the world top 15 on the ranking cutoff date July 11 for a shot at Rio.

Woods’ niece, Cheyenne Woods, is No. 311 in the women’s rankings this week, marking the first time she’s ranked higher than her uncle in equivalent.

“If Tiger Woods had never had a lesson after he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots [in 2000], Tiger Woods would have broken every conceivable record that ever lived,” Player said. “We need Tiger Woods to come back. Will he come back? It’s debatable. He got so mixed up with all the different coaches, and so that’s the last thing I would ever do is try and make any changes in my team. We just have discussions of being positive and having patience and enjoying the moment and being honored and grateful to be at the Olympic Games. It’s the mental, psychological help, mainly.”

Player, at 80, could become one of the oldest people to march in an Opening Ceremony, should he be allowed.

“I don’t know, what your role, if you’re entitled to do that,” Player said. “I would imagine you are. So, it’s something to look forward to.”

The rules for who may participate in the Parade of Nations have not been finalized yet, but they will likely follow the models from previous Olympics, according to the International Olympic Committee.

In London, one coach per discipline was allowed to march. In previous Olympics, six officials were allowed to march per delegation.

In either of those cases, South Africa’s Olympic Committee would decide if Player will be given the opportunity to march in the Opening Ceremony on Aug. 5.

PHOTOS: Check out the first Olympic golf course in 112 years

Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

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Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

“I don’t like usually comparing the years,” he said. “But I think [the conditions are] quite suitable to my style of the game.”

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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U.S. men off to best French Open start in 24 years

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The last time U.S. men started this well at the French Open, Sebastian Korda wasn’t alive and his dad had yet to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Eight American men are into the second round at Roland Garros, the largest contingent in the last 64 since 1996. It could have been nine, had Sam Querrey served out the match in the third set against 13th seed Andrey Rublev of Russia.

Still, the U.S. has more men in the second round than any other nation. Astonishing, given U.S. men went a collective 1-9 at the 2019 French Open.

Back in 1996, nine American men won first-round matches. That group included Pete SamprasAndre AgassiJim Courier and Michael Chang (in Sampras’ deepest run in Paris, to the semifinals).

Clay has long been kryptonite for this generation of Americans — the last U.S. man to make a Roland Garros quarterfinal was Agassi in 2003.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

This group includes veterans like Jack Sock, who swept countryman Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 on Monday. Sock, 28, was once ranked eighth in the world.

He then dropped out of the rankings entirely, missing time due to injury and going 10 months between tour-level match wins. He’s now at No. 310 and preparing to play No. 3 Dominic Thiem in the second round.

“A pretty horrific two years in a row,” Sock said. “I’m not opposed to silencing some haters after the last couple years I’ve gone through. I’ve read and seen enough of it, heard enough of it. I’m kind of ready to reestablish myself out there, let people know that I’m back.”

Then there’s 35-year-old John Isner, the big server who swept a French wild card in round one. Isner, the highest seeded U.S. man at No. 21, has posted some decent Roland Garros results, reaching the fourth round three times.

There are new faces, too. Taylor Fritz is seeded 27, aged 22 and in an open section of the draw to make his first Grand Slam fourth round.

On Sunday, 20-year-old Korda became the youngest U.S. man to win a French Open main-draw match since an 18-year-old Andy Roddick beat Chang in 2001.

He is the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda and brother of the world’s second- and 22nd-ranked female golfers (Nelly and Jessica).

So far, Sebastian’s biggest feats: winning the 2018 Australian Open junior title and, in his only golf tournament, beating both of his sisters when he was 11. It was around that age that he gave up ice hockey and focused solely on tennis.

Korda was hooked after watching a Czech whom his dad coached, Radek Stepanek, at the U.S. Open in 2009.

“He played Djokovic on [Arthur] Ashe [Stadium] like at 10:30 at night,” Korda, nicknamed Sebi, said on Tennis Channel. “Completely packed. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I went home, and I was like, this is exactly what I want to do.”

An American man is already guaranteed to make the third round in Paris. Korda faces Isner on Thursday.

“I grew up on the clay,” Korda said, “so I know how to play on it a little bit.”

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