LaShawn Merritt
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LaShawn Merritt returns to 200m, after 14 years, with Olympic double in play

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EUGENE, Ore. — When LaShawn Merritt began sprinting as a high school sophomore in 2002, he raced the 100m and 200m. The following year, the Portsmouth (Va.) Wilson High track team needed a 400m runner.

A coach wanted it to be Merritt and told him, “real men run the 400.” The fearless athlete (Merritt also played wide receiver and safety at Wilson) accepted the challenge.

Merritt won his first 400m race, then a Virginia state title as a junior and then the junior national and junior world titles in the 400m as a senior.

He turned pro after his first semester at East Carolina, earned a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships and gold at the 2008 Olympics. Both in the 400m, of course.

Merritt never raced the 100m again, and the 200m fewer and fewer as he fluctuated in the 400m (dropped out of the 2012 Olympics due to injury, won the 2013 World title).

In 2015, Merritt didn’t race a single 200m for the first time in 15 years in the sport (excluding 2010, when he didn’t race at all due to his infamous suspension). He wasn’t healthy early last year, when he usually contests those half-lap races.

But Merritt never forgot that early in his career, he set a goal of racing both the 200m and 400m at a global championship. The 30-year-old has decided that the Rio Olympics might be that meet.

“I’m not sure yet, we’ll see,” Merritt said after leading his 200m first-round heat in 20.09 seconds at the Olympic Trials, four days after winning the 400m to make his third Olympic team.

Merritt was third-fastest of the 24 men who advanced to Friday’s 200m semifinals (the final is Saturday, where the top three make the Olympic team). But Merritt shut it down significantly more than the two teenagers who ran slightly faster in earlier heats before it started raining.

“Still a little foreign to me, that 200,” Merritt said afterward. “It wasn’t a hard race. It was only half of my race.”

Track and Field Trials: ResultsDaily Schedule | TV Schedule

Merritt, after clocking a personal-best 43.65 seconds in the 400m to take silver at the world championships last Aug. 26, took fewer than two months of an offseason. That was an adjustment.

“They’ve been trying to get me to train in November since 2011,” said Merritt, who is on his third coach since then, working since January 2015 at Disney’s Wide World of Sports under Brooks Johnson.

It appears the extra work benefited Merritt, who sank his teeth into this season with 200m races in March, April and May. In Nassau, Bahamas, on April 16, Merritt clocked 19.78 seconds.

It was a personal best (beating his previous top time from 2007). Only one man had ever covered 200m faster that early in a year (Michael Johnson in 2000).

“That was a fast time and we thought, hmm, we might as well see if we’re feeling healthy,” Merritt said.

It held up. Merritt owns the world’s fastest 200m and 400m times this year. He may join Allyson Felix, who has received far more publicity for her plan, as the first Americans to try and win the 200m and 400m at the Olympics since Michael Johnson in 1996.

“Somebody did it, and that means it can be done again, I guess,” Merritt said Thursday.

Unlike Felix, Merritt said he’s not taking the 200m too seriously. He says his focus is the 400m and, specifically, the 400m world record. That belongs to Johnson, of course, at 43.18 seconds.

The 2015 World Championships 400m final was so fast, gold medalist Wayde van Niekerk and Merritt ran the world’s fastest times since 2007, that Johnson’s world record could actually be neared in Rio. Nobody has been within a quarter of a second since Johnson set it.

Last year, Merritt surpassed Carl Lewis for the most World Championships medals for an American man (11, though Merritt has the benefit of worlds every other year, while most in Lewis’ prime were every four years). But it is not medals that motivates Merritt.

“I understand the legacy in this sport that people are talking about, it’s when people run fast,” Merritt, who is the sixth-fastest man all time in the 400m, said last fall. “I’ve won for a long time, but I’m not talked about with Michael Johnson and [third-fastest man of all time] Jeremy Wariner, with the 43.4s and 43.1s.”

If Merritt makes the Olympic team in the 200m and chooses to double in Rio, he will have an easier schedule than Felix.

There is a full day off between the men’s 400m final and the first round of the 200m, whereas Felix had to petition to push the women’s 200m first round from an hour before the 400m final to earlier in the same day.

Merritt would then get another full day off before the 4x400m relay, possibly his third event in Rio. By the end of the Games, people could be talking about him like never before.

“I really want to get these Games and run well and get two golds,” Merritt said on USATF.TV, before pausing and adding, “three golds, possibly.”

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Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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