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1996 Olympic team continues to impact women’s basketball

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NEW YORK (AP) — There was much more at rise for the 1996 Olympic women’s basketball team than just winning the gold medal when they took the floor against Brazil in Atlanta.

An 18-month journey was coming to an end and anything less than a gold medal would have been considered a huge failure for the Americans. But a defeat also could have been a major blow to the two professional startup leagues in the U.S. looming on the horizon after the Atlanta Olympics.

“We knew what was at stake,” backup guard Dawn Staley said. “We knew there was a WNBA in waiting, there was the ABL in waiting. It was all depending on how successful we were as a team. And we also wanted to show America, our nation, that women playing at the peaks of their careers was truly something special.”

They didn’t disappoint the 32,987 fans at the Georgia Dome.

The U.S. cruised to an easy 111-87 victory over Brazil, capping off an 8-0 mark in the Olympics. That was the first of five straight gold medals for the Americans in the Games. That team dominated, led by Lisa Leslie, Katrina McClain and Sheryl Swoopes. They still hold several U.S. Olympic records, including scoring average (102.4), points (819) and assists (207).

“We were on a mission. We trained for a year and half together. That was the first time USA Basketball had ever put a group of women together, and we were on a mission,” said Nikki McCray, currently an assistant on Staley’s coaching staff at South Carolina. “We were machines. Credit Tara VanDerveer and her staff for just getting us ready, and we were unstoppable. To go 60-0? That’s never been done before, and we were not going to fall short of winning the gold medal and to win it was truly remarkable.”

That team, which started training together in 1995, was the foundation for the launch of the ABL and the WNBA. The ABL lasted only two years, but the WNBA is now in its 20th season. Players earned $50,000 the year the toured with the team. They traveled around the world, flying more than 100,000 miles and played 52 games before the Olympics.

“Those players, not only did they represent us on the court in winning a gold medal in such a huge fashion, but they were publicizing and promoting the women’s game and basically got two leagues off the ground and one has withstood everything, the WNBA,” said New York Liberty assistant coach Katie Smith. “So we are indebted to them, a huge `thank you’ for what they did.”

MORE: A look at all 12 players on the Atlanta 1996 team

Because of the 1996 team, Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker is part of a generation of women who grew up with a league to play in — the United States.

“I was on my couch and heard they were starting this new league, and I remember thinking how excited I was,” she said. “I went out to my driveway and started shooting and I no longer had to pretend to play in the NBA, I could pretend to play in the WNBA.”

Parker wasn’t the only current WNBA star the 1996 team influenced. Tamika Catchings was on the USA women’s Junior World Championship qualifying team. After a practice in Colorado she and her teammates were told a surprise awaited them. In walked Leslie, Swoopes, Staley and the rest of the 1996 Olympic team.

“It was so cool,” Catchings said. “It was the first time for me that I saw players like Lisa and Dawn and Sheryl. It was someone that I wanted to be like. A female basketball player to look up to. But watching the Olympic team, I was like, `Oh, my God. One day I want to be there, and I want to represent my country and have that opportunity.”‘

Catchings has been a part of the last three Olympic gold medal winning teams for the U.S. She’ll try and help the U.S. win a sixth consecutive gold medal at the Rio Games this summer.

The 1996 team didn’t just leave their impact with the WNBA and the Olympic success. Five players from that squad are coaching in college now — Jennifer Azzi, Staley, McCray, Katy Steding and Swoopes.

“It was a magical year,” coach VanDerveer said. “Although I don’t know that our players would say that. It was really a fantastic trip. I loved the whole experience.”

MORE: Auriemma wouldn’t have returned without Bird, Taurasi

 

2020 French Open women’s singles draw, results

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If Serena Williams is to win a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title at the French Open, she may have to go through her older sister in the fourth round.

Williams, the sixth seed, could play Venus Williams in the round of 16 at Roland Garros, which begins Sunday.

Serena opens against countrywoman Kristie Ahn, whom she beat in the first round at the U.S. Open. Serena could then get her U.S. Open quarterfinal opponent, fellow mom Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, in the second round.

If Venus is to reach the fourth round, she must potentially get past U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka in the second round. Azarenka beat Serena in the U.S. Open semifinals, ending the American’s latest bid to tie Margaret Court‘s major titles record.

Venus lost in the French Open first round the last two years.

The French Open top seed is 2018 champion Simona Halep, who could play 2019 semifinalist Amanda Anisimova in the third round.

Coco Gauff, the rising 16-year-old American, gets 2019 semifinalist Jo Konta of Great Britain in the first round in the same quarter of the draw as Halep.

The field lacks defending champion Ash Barty of Australia, not traveling due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Also out: U.S. Open winner Naomi Osaka, citing a sore hamstring and tight turnaround from prevailing in New York two weeks ago.

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2020 French Open men’s singles draw, results

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Rafael Nadal was put into the same half of the French Open draw as fellow 2018 and 2019 finalist Dominic Thiem of Austria, with top-ranked Novak Djokovic catching a break.

Nadal, trying to tie Roger Federer‘s male record 20 Grand Slam singles titles, could play sixth-seeded German Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals before a potential clash with Thiem, who just won the U.S. Open.

Djokovic, who is undefeated in 2020 save being defaulted out of the U.S. Open, could play No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy in the quarterfinals before a possible semifinal with Russian Daniil Medvedev.

Medvedev is the fourth seed but is 0-3 at the French Open. Another possible Djokovic semifinal opponent is fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, who reached the fourth round last year.

The most anticipated first-round matchup is between three-time major champion Andy Murray and 2015 French Open champion Stan Wawrinka. In Murray’s most recent French Open match, he lost in five sets to Wawrinka in the 2017 semifinals.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

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