Venus Williams falls in Wimbledon final to Garbine Muguruza

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LONDON (AP) — Through it all, Venus Williams kept working, kept striving, kept eyeing yet another Wimbledon championship.

Through it all, through the difficult days of adjusting to life with an energy-sapping autoimmune disease, through the disappointing days of first-round losses that led to questions about retirement, through all of the accumulating years, she pressed on.

And on Saturday, facing Garbine Muguruza in the final, Williams had a shot at her sixth title at the All England Club — nine years after her last one and, remarkably, 17 years after her first.

Williams twice was a point from taking the opening set before unraveling completely, dropping the last nine games and losing 7-5, 6-0 to Muguruza, who earned her first Wimbledon championship.

“This is where you want to be. I like to win. I don’t want to just get to a final,” said Williams, at 37 the oldest woman to play in a title match at the grass-court major since 1994. “It’s just about playing a little better.”

She appeared ready to take control Saturday, ahead 5-4 in the first set and with Muguruza serving at 15-40. But Williams netted a forehand to close a 20-stroke exchange on the first set point. And on the second, she sent a return long. Muguruza would go on to win that game — and the next eight, too, to earn her third Grand Slam trophy.

Williams owns seven of them — five at Wimbledon in 2000-01, 2005, 2007 and 2008; two at the U.S. Open in 2000-01.

But her coach, David Witt, offered one explanation for the way everything came undone for Williams against Muguruza.

“It was just nerves,” Witt said.

“She never, I thought, looked like she was relaxed out there,” he added.

Williams arrived in England a few weeks after being involved in a two-car accident in Florida. Two weeks after the crash, a 78-year-old passenger in the other vehicle died. At a news conference following her first-round victory at Wimbledon, Williams was asked about the episode, and she tried to respond, before wiping away tears and briefly leaving the room to compose herself.

Witt said they hadn’t discussed what happened with each other once the tournament began, hoping Williams could “just focus on the tennis.”

Up until late in the first set Saturday, Williams did play quite well.

In 2011, she revealed she had been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, a condition that can cause exhaustion and joint pain. Williams has since spoken about how she turned to a plant-based diet and learned other ways to get by. A half-dozen exits from majors after her opening match made some think Williams might stop playing tennis, let alone return to its biggest stages.

“There were definitely,” Williams said this week, “some issues.”

But she never lost her love for the sport or a desire to get her game back in order.

“I’m just very surprised that she’s hungry to keep winning. She has won almost everything. She’s not (still) young, to be looking forward to all these matches. She just shows this toughness,” Muguruza said. “I don’t know if I will be like this at her age.”

The strongest initial sign of a renaissance for Williams came during a run to the Wimbledon semifinals a year ago. Then, this January, she got to the Australian Open final for the first time since 2003, losing to her sister, Serena Williams. And then came these past two weeks and her first appearance in the Wimbledon final since a loss to Serena in 2009.

“I’ve been in a position a lot of times this year to contend for big titles. That’s the kind of position I want to keep putting myself in,” Williams said. “It’s just about getting over the line. I believe I can do that.”

She was asked more than once by reporters Saturday whether the Sjogren’s or the accumulated fatigue or her age played a role in the way the match unfolded. But Williams deflected those questions, instead offering praise of Muguruza, whose power and precision gave the American problems.

“Credit to her,” Williams said. “She just dug in there.”

Williams hit five double-faults, three in one game and once to get broken to begin the second set. She finished with 25 unforced errors, more than twice as many as Muguruza.

“She started pressing in the second,” Witt observed, “and balls were flying out like you don’t see.”

This was Williams’ 16th Grand Slam final, second of 2017.

She sounded certain that it won’t be the last.

Asked during the on-court trophy presentation if she had a message for Serena, who is off the tour while expecting a baby, Venus said: “Oh, I miss you. I tried my best to do the same things you do, but I think that there’ll be other opportunities. I do.”

After all that’s gone on, why doubt her now?

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MORE: Serena Williams comments on 2020 Olympics during pregnancy

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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