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Serena Williams advances in French Open return; ‘You can’t beat a catsuit’

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PARIS (AP) — For all that has changed in the 16 months since Serena Williams last played in a Grand Slam tournament — she is now married and a mother — so much was familiar about her at the French Open on Tuesday.

The fashion statement, this time in the form of a black bodysuit with a red belt that she said made her feel like a “warrior princess.” The cries of “Come on!” The big serves that provided 13 aces. The returns that eventually produced three consecutive breaks of serve.

And, yes, the victory. Competing as a mom for the first time at a major, and only about nine months since giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, then dealing with postpartum complications, Williams edged 70th-ranked Kristyna Pliskova of the Czech Republic 7-6 (4), 6-4 at Roland Garros.

Already a transcendent sports star and cultural icon, Williams now carries a new title: working mother.

“Well, my priority is Olympia. No matter what, that’s my priority. I have given tennis so much, and tennis has actually given me a lot, and I couldn’t be more grateful,” Williams said. “She’s my priority, and I work everything around her.”

The 36-year-old American had not played in one of tennis’s biggest tournaments since winning the Australian Open in January 2017 for her 23rd Grand Slam title, breaking a tie with Steffi Graf for the most in the professional era.

Williams, the world found out later, was pregnant at the time. Her baby was born Sept. 1; Williams married Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in November.

Williams eventually revealed that she had an emergency cesarean section, then encountered trouble breathing afterward because of a pulmonary embolism and needed a follow-up operation.

“Just literally not sure if I was going to make it or not at several different times,” Williams said. “A lot of people have really reached out, because they have so many similar stories, too. I feel like a lot of people don’t talk about it. They talk about the baby and how happy they are. But it’s a lot that goes into it with the pregnancy and with giving birth, and it’s called a ‘miracle’ for a reason.”

FRENCH OPEN: TV/Stream Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw (PDF) | Women’s Draw

The first match of her comeback was in doubles alongside her older sister, Venus Williams, for the U.S. Fed Cup team in February. She entered two tournaments in singles the next month, going 2-2. An absence of more than two months followed, until Tuesday in Paris.

So a woman who has spent hundreds of weeks ranked No. 1 is currently No. 451 and unseeded at the French Open, a subject of some debate: Should her past success accord her the protection a seeding offers? Williams faces 17th-seeded Ash Barty of Australia next.

“She’s a genuine champion,” Barty said. “What she’s done to be able to get back … is a pretty amazing thing.”

Tuesday’s return was striking, from Williams’ powerful shots to her outfit, which called to mind the “catsuit” she wore at the 2002 U.S. Open.

It was by far the most significant event of Day 3 at Roland Garros, even though there were so many other Grand Slam champions in action. Rafael Nadal finished off a rain-interrupted victory as he begins his try for a record-extending 11th French Open title. Maria Sharapova, a two-time champ in Paris, was pushed to three sets in a win. Garbine Muguruza, who beat Williams in the 2016 final at Roland Garros, beat another past champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova.

All eyes were on Williams, though. On the fifth point, she delivered an ace at 112 mph (181 kph). Moments later, the chair umpire intoned, “Jeu, Madame Williams,” — French for “Game, Mrs. Williams,” a change from the “Mademoiselle” used for unmarried female players.

Pliskova, a lefty whose twin sister upset Williams in the 2016 U.S. Open semifinals, actually hit more aces, 15. That’s the most anyone has hit against Williams since at least 2008, according to the WTA.

Indeed, Williams appeared to have trouble reading Pliskova’s serves early on. There were other blips, of the sort to be expected from someone who hasn’t played lately. Williams double-faulted seven times. She had nearly as many unforced errors, 25, as winners, 29.

But she is not simply skilled. She is smart, too, and she figured things out.

After trailing 3-0 in the tiebreaker, she reeled off six points in a row. After falling behind 2-0 in the second set, Williams came up with a trio of service breaks.

All was not perfect, of course. In the final game, Williams’ right foot gave way as she sprinted toward the net and she landed on her backside. At least she was able to laugh at that as she went to the sideline to towel off. A spectator yelled: “That’s all right, Serena! You still look great!”

After months of worrying more about diapers than drop shots, of breastfeeding for what she called “a really, really, really long time,” of organizing her practice schedule around her newborn’s nap schedule, Williams was back to doing what she’s most famous for, in an arena where she earned trophies in 2002, 2013 and 2015.

On Tuesday, she noted that she showed up at her news conference more promptly than she used to, so she could have more time to spend with Olympia.

“I don’t want her to ever feel like I’m not around. I’m a super hands-on mom,” Williams said. “Maybe too much.”

A reporter wanted to know whether Williams believes she can win the title again.

“I’m definitely here to compete and do the best that I can do, obviously. I’m not putting any pressure on myself as I normally do,” Williams began.

Then, perhaps questioning her own words as she heard them, she paused, before adding with a laugh: “I think deep down, we all know the answer to that.”

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Lance Armstrong timeline: cancer, Tour de France, doping admission

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A look at the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, who beat testicular cancer to win a record seven Tour de France titles, then was found guilty of and admitted to doping for the majority of his career …

Aug. 2, 1992: Armstrong, then a 20-year-old amateur cyclist who had left triathlon because it wasn’t an Olympic sport, makes his Olympic debut at the Barcelona Games. He finishes 14th in the road race as the top American, missing a late breakaway. “I don’t think it was one of my better days, unfortunately,” Armstrong said on NBC. “Last couple weeks, everything has been perfect, but today, I just didn’t have what it took.” A week later, Armstrong finished last of 111 riders in his pro debut.

Aug. 29, 1993: Wins the world championships road race, becoming the second U.S. man to win a senior road cycling world title after three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. Armstrong prevails by 19 seconds over Spain’s Miguel Indurain, who won five straight Tours de France from 1991-95. “I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a Tour racer,” Armstrong said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “I love the Tour de France; it’s my favorite bike race, but I’m not fool enough to sit here and say I’m going to win it. For the time being, I’m a one-day rider.”

Aug. 3, 1996: After failing to finish three of his first four Tour de France appearances (and placing 36th in the other), is sixth in the Atlanta Olympic time trial. “This was a big goal and something that I wanted to do well in and wanted the American people to see success,” Armstrong said on NBC. “The legs just weren’t there to win or to medal. I have to move forward and look to the next thing.”

Oct. 2, 1996: Diagnosed with testicular cancer. A day later, he undergoes surgery to have the malignant right testicle removed. Five days later, he begins chemotherapy. Six days later, Armstrong holds a press conference to announce it publicly, saying the cancer spread to his abdomen (and, later, his brain). He described it as “between moderate and advanced” and that his oncologist told him the cure rate was between 65 and 85 percent. “I will win,” Armstrong says. “I intend to beat this disease, and further, I intend to ride again as a professional cyclist.”

Oct. 27, 1996: Betsy Andreu later testifies that, on this date, Armstrong told a doctor at Indiana University Hospital that he had taken performance-enhancing drugs; EPO, testosterone, growth hormone, cortisone and steroids. Andreu said she and others were in a room to hear this. Her husband, Frankie Andreu, an Armstrong cycling teammate, confirmed her recollection to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Armstrong, in admitting to doping in 2013, declined to address what became known as “the hospital room confession,” which he previously refuted.

January 1997: Establishes the Lance Armstrong Foundation, later called Livestrong, to support cancer awareness and research. Is later declared cancer-free.

Feb. 15, 1998: Returns to racing. Later in September, finishes fourth in his Grand Tour return at the Vuelta a Espana, one of the three Grand Tours after the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.

1999 Tour de France: Achieves global fame by winning cycling’s most prestigious event in his first Tour de France start since his cancer diagnosis. Armstrong was not a pre-event favorite, but he won the opening 4.2-mile prologue to set the tone. He won all three time trials and, by the end, distanced second-place Alex Zulle by 7 minutes, 37 seconds in a Tour that lacked the previous two winners — Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani. Armstrong faced doping questions during the three-week Tour. An Armstrong urine sample revealed a small amount of a corticosteroid, after which Armstrong produced a prescription for a cream to treat saddle sores to justify it. “There’s no secrets here,” Armstrong said after Stage 14. “We have the oldest secret in the book: hard work.”

2000 Tour de France: With Ullrich and Pantani in the field, Armstrong crushed them on Stage 10, taking the yellow jersey by four minutes. He ends up winning the Tour by 6:02 over Ullrich, who over the years became the closest thing Armstrong had to a rival. In a Nike commercial that debuted in January that year, Armstrong again attacked his critics, saying, “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”

Sept. 30, 2000: Takes bronze in the Sydney Olympic time trial, behind Russian Viatcheslav Ekimov (a teammate on Armstrong’s Tour de France teams) and Ullrich. Armstrong would be stripped of the bronze medal 12 years later for doping. “I came to win the gold medal,” he said on NBC. “When you prepare for an event and you come and you do your best, and you don’t win, you have to say, I didn’t deserve to win.”

2001 Tour de France: Third straight Tour title. In Stage 10 on the iconic Alpe d’Huez, Armstrong gave what came to be known as “The Look,” turning back to stare in sunglasses at Ullrich, then accelerating away to win the stage by 1:59 over the German. “I decided to give a look, see how he was, then give a little surge and see what happened,” Armstrong said after the stage. Also that year, LeMond gives a famous quote to journalist David Walsh on Armstrong: “If it is true, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sport. If it is not, it is the greatest fraud.”

2002 Tour de France: Fourth title in a row — by 7:17 over Joseba Beloki sans Ullirch and Pantani — with few notable highlights. Maybe the most memorable, French fans yelling “Dope!” as he chased Richard Virenque (another disgraced doper) up the esteemed Mont Ventoux. Armstrong would be named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

2003 Tour de France: By far the closest of the Tour wins — by 1:01 over Ullrich — with two very close calls. In Stage 9, Armstrong detoured through a field to avoid a crashing Beloki, who broke his right femur and never contended at a Grand Tour again. In Stage 15, Armstrong’s handlebars caught a spectator’s yellow bag. He crashed to the pavement, remounted and won the stage, upping his lead from 15 seconds to 1:07 over Ullrich.

2004 Tour de France: Record-breaking sixth Tour de France title. Jacques AnquetilEddy MerckxBernard Hinault and Indurain shared the record of five, and now share the record again after Armstrong’s titles were stripped. Earlier in 2004, the Livestrong yellow bracelet/wristband is introduced. Tens of millions would be sold. He skips the 2004 Athens Olympics, which began three weeks after the Tour ended.

April 18, 2005: Announces he will retire after the 2005 Tour de France. “My children are my biggest supporters, but at the same time, they are the ones who told me it’s time to come home,” Armstrong says. On the same day, former teammate and 2004 Olympic time trial champion Tyler Hamilton is banned two years for blood doping.

2005 Tour de France: Finishes career with seventh Tour de France title. Armstrong remains defiant until the end. In his victory speech atop a podium on the Champs-Elysees, he says with girlfriend Sheryl Crow looking on, “The last thing I’ll say, for the people that don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics, I”m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big. And I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.” A month later, French sports daily newspaper L’Equipe publishes a front-page article headlined, “Le Mensonge Armstrong” or “The Armstrong Lie.” It reports that six Armstrong doping samples at the 1999 Tour de France showed the presence of the banned EPO.

Sept. 9, 2008: Announces comeback, the reason being “to launch an international cancer strategy,” in a video on his foundation’s website. In his 2013 doping confession, Armstrong says he regrets the comeback. “We wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t come back,” he tells Oprah Winfrey on primetime TV.

2009 Tour de France: Finishes third, 5:24 behind rival Astana teammate and Spanish winner Alberto Contador. “I can’t complain,” Armstrong said on Versus after the penultimate stage finishing atop Mont Ventoux. “For an old fart, coming in here, getting on the podium with these young guys, not so bad.” USADA later reported that scientific data showed Armstrong used EPO or blood transfusions during that Tour, which Armstrong denied in 2013 when admitting to doping earlier in his career.

2010 Tour de France: Finishes 23rd in his last Tour de France. Armstrong races after former teammate Floyd Landis admits to doping and accuses Armstrong and other former teammates of doping during the Tour de France wins. “At some point, people have to tell their kids that Santa Claus isn’t real,” Landis says in a “Nightline” interview that aired the final weekend of the Tour.

Feb. 16, 2011: Announces retirement, citing tiredness (in multiple respects) at age 39. “I can’t say I have any regrets. It’s been an excellent ride. I really thought I was going to win another Tour,” Armstrong said, according to The Associated Press. “Then I lined up like everybody else and wound up third.”

Aug. 24, 2012: USADA announces Armstrong is banned for life, and all of his results dating to Aug. 1, 1998, annulled, including all seven Tour de France titles. Armstrong chose not to contest the charges, which were first sent to him in a June letter, though he did not publicly admit to cheating. USADA releases details of the investigation in October. The International Cycling Union chooses not to contest USADA’s ruling, formally stripping him of the Tour de France titles. “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling,” UCI President Pat McQuaid says. In November, a defiant Armstrong tweets an image of him lying on a couch in a room with seven framed Tour de France yellow jerseys on the walls.

Jan. 17, 2013: Admits to doping during all of his Tour de France victories in the Oprah confession that airs on primetime TV. “I viewed this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times,” Armstrong says in a pre-recorded interview. “It’s just this mythic, perfect story, and it wasn’t true.” Armstrong said he did not view it as cheating while he was taking PEDs because others did, too. On the same day, the International Olympic Committee strips Armstrong of his 2000 Olympic bronze medal.

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Anna Veith retires, leaves Austrian Alpine skiing in unfamiliar territory

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Anna Veith has retired from Alpine skiing, leaving Austria without an active woman who has won a World Cup overall title for the first time in 27 years.

Veith announced her retirement on a German-language live stream interview Saturday after a montage of career highlights set to Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.” She was in tears after watching a series of video messages from the likes of fellow champion ski racers Marcel HirscherTina Maze and Lara Gut.

“I‘m ready for the next chapter,” was posted on Veith’s Instagram minutes later. “My heart and head are telling me it‘s time to do something new. And so, I have decided to retire from ski racing.
Skiing is my whole life. It has made me who I am today and will always be something I’m passionate about. I am so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, to learn and achieve in the past fifteen years. I’ve been able to fulfil my childhood dreams and more.”

Veith, 30, won the overall, the biggest annual prize in ski racing, in 2014 and 2015. Lindsey Vonn was in between major leg injuries. Mikaela Shiffrin was still on the rise.

Veith, then Anna Fenninger, blossomed into the world’s best skier in her early 20s. After winning the 2014 Olympic super-G, she finished first or second in five of her last six starts of that World Cup season to overtake a retiring German Maria Hoefl-Riesch for the crown.

The following year, Veith again came from behind, this time edging Slovenian Tina Maze in the last race of the season.

Everything changed on Oct. 21, 2015. Veith crashed in training, tearing ligaments and the patellar tendon in her right knee, three days before the start of the season. She missed 14 months of races.

Veith, after a 2016-17 season-ending left knee surgery, returned to the top of a World Cup podium in December 2017. At her last Olympics in PyeongChang, Veith skied into first place from the 15th bib in the super-G, looking to cap an improbable ride to a repeat gold medal.

Then something more surprising happened: World champion snowboarder Ester Ledecka beat Veith’s time by .01 from the 26th starting position, relegating Veith to silver. Pre-race medal contenders are usually done by bib 20. Ledecka’s best prior World Cup race finish was a seventh.

Veith tore another right knee ligament in January 2019, then returned this past season with a best finish of seventh.

With Veith’s retirement, Austria has zero active Olympic or World Cup overall champions in women’s Alpine skiing. Austria, the most successful Olympic Alpine nation in history, had at least one active World Cup overall champion every day since Anita Wachter‘s crown in 1993.

In the most recent abbreviated World Cup season, Austria had zero women win a discipline or overall title, though Nicole Schmidhofer won the 2017 World super-G title and the 2019 World Cup downhill season crown.

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