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Serena Williams rallies for French Open win, nears possible showdown

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PARIS (AP) — After playing so infrequently, it’s as if Serena Williams is starting from scratch.

Sure looked that way for a bit more than a half-hour in the French Open’s second round on Thursday, when she dealt with muscle soreness, a lack of verve and a bunch of mistakes. So many mistakes.

And then, suddenly, after unleashing one particularly powerful backhand return winner that she punctuated with a shout, Williams was back. She was animated. Determined. Dominant, even. Shaking off some rust in her first Grand Slam tournament since giving birth nine months ago, Williams recalibrated her shots and erased a deficit of a set and a break to beat 17th-seeded Ashleigh Barty of Australia 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a match that ended shortly before dusk.

“I lost the first set, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to try harder. I’ve got to just try harder,’ she told the crowd afterward. “And Serena came out.”

Well put.

Williams had all sorts of trouble in the opening set, compiling 12 unforced errors. By the time the second set was merely one game old, she had been broken twice in the match, each time at love, a rather surprising development for the owner of one of her sport’s most dangerous serves.

Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, attributed much of the poor start to this outing coming about 48 hours after the first match of her comeback following a two-month break. She arrived in Paris having played only four matches all season — none on the red clay used at Roland Garros, and none at a major tournament since she won her 23rd such title at the Australian Open in January 2017, while pregnant.

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

“She had no energy. She was struggling to move,” Mouratoglou said, adding that he had hoped for rain to postpone the match against Barty until Thursday. “She was struggling to use her legs on the serve and she was making much too many mistakes.”

And then?

“This ability to turn a match around and suddenly be like a superhero, basically — she’s normal and suddenly, Poom!” he said, snapping fingers on both hands. “Something happens, and she transforms into someone who’s almost unreachable at the level she gets to. This is something she’s always had. It’s really special, but that’s also why she is who she is.”

Williams started yelling and pumping her fist after pretty much every point that went her way. It woke up Williams’ game. Might have startled Barty, too. As big a hitter as Barty is in her own right, she is hardly in Williams’ class — who is? — and never has been past the third round at a major tournament.

The 36-year-old American, who became a mother on Sept. 1, grabbed four consecutive games over a span of less than 15 minutes to lead 4-1 in the second set, which soon enough would be hers. She gained control of the third almost immediately, breaking to go ahead 2-1, then holding for 3-1.

After only three winners in the first set, she had 25 the rest of the way.

“When push came to shove, the real Serena came out. And that’s one of her best assets: When her back is against the wall, the best comes out,” Barty said. “And that happened early in the second, and early in the third again.”

When Williams served out the victory with a backhand winner down the line, she raised both arms. In the stands, Mouratoglou, shook his fist.

“I felt like it’s been a long way and a long journey, and I’m still getting there, you know. But I have been working really hard, for a really long time,” said Williams, who is ranked 451st, 450 spots below her career high. “I just am hoping that every day I’m out there, every match I’m out there … it will come together.”

Next for Williams is a third-round match against 11th-seeded Julia Goerges of Germany.

Get through that, and Williams would face either five-time major champion Maria Sharapova or 2016 U.S. Open runner-up Karolina Pliskova. Williams beat Pliskova’s twin sister, Kristyna, in the first round in Paris.

There were, to be sure, plenty of other big names in action Wednesday, including victories for Sharapova, No. 1-ranked Simona Halep and 10-time men’s champion Rafael Nadal.

But the 2018 French Open is, first and foremost, about Williams and her return to a Grand Slam stage.

“She’s not quite at the level she was when she was at her best, but that’s normal. That’s expected,” Barty said. “But her level when she’s not quite on her best is still bloody good.”

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Yevgenia Medvedeva leads after short program at Autumn Classic

Yevgenia Medvedeva
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Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva leads after Thursday’s short program at her season opener, the Autumn Classic International. In her first competition since moving to Toronto to train under Brian Orser, Medvedeva scored 70.89 points.

Olympic team event bronze medalist Bradie Tennell sits in second place heading into Friday’s free skate with 69.26 points. Tennell, the reigning U.S. national champion, was joined by countrywoman Starr Andrews in Ontario. Andrews scored 56.70 points and finished fifth in the short program.

France’s Mae Berenice Meite rounds out the top three with 58.23 points.

Earlier on Thursday, Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres from France scored 73.81 points to build their lead over the pairs’ field. Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro from Canada were second with 64.73 points, followed by the two American teams: Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier (61.91) and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson (50.25), who competed internationally as new partners for the first time.

Competition at the Autumn Classic continues this weekend. Friday features the rhythm dance, men’s short program, and the pairs’ and ladies’ free skates. Saturday concludes competition with the free dance and men’s free skate. The event will stream live on Skate Canada’s Dailymotion page.

Elsewhere in the world of figure skating this weekend, Rika Kihira took the ladies’ short program at the Nepela Trophy in Bratislava. The reigning world junior champion attempted her triple Axel to open her “Clair de Lune” program but fell and was awarded -5 Grades of Execution across the board. She tallied 70.79 points and leads Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva by just 0.8 points. Russian Stanislava Konstantinova is third with 65.03 points.

Russian men lead the field after the short program in Bratislava. Mikhail Kolyada scored 96.82 points while Sergei Voronov earned 81.77 points. Japan’s Keiji Tanaka currently sits third with 77.53 points.

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc have a three-point lead on the pairs’ field after the short program with 65.68 points. Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay, the other Americans in the field, are third with 59.60 points in their first competition of the season.

Competition continues at the Nepela Trophy this weekend with the rhythm dance and pairs’ free skate on Friday and the ladies’ free skate, free dance, and men’s free skate on Saturday.

MORE: Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova delays season opener by one week

Despite protests, Russias anti-doping agency reinstated

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The World Anti-Doping Agency declared Russia’s scandal-ridden drug-fighting operation back in business Thursday, a decision designed to bring a close to one of sports’ most notorious doping scandals but one bitterly disputed by hundreds of athletes and described as “treachery” by the lawyer for the man who exposed the corruption.

On a 9-2 vote, the executive committee took the advice of the agency’s compliance review panel and declared RUSADA as having satisfied conditions of reinstatement that were gradually softened over the summer.

In most tangible ways, the decision doesn’t change much: RUSADA has been up and running for a while, bringing one of the world’s largest testing programs back on line with the help of officials from Britain and elsewhere. And Russia’s Olympic committee was brought back into the fold after the Pyeongchang Olympics, where athletes who could prove they were clean were able to compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”

But RUSADA’s reinstatement now clears the country to again bid for major international events — although soccer’s World Cup was held there this summer despite that restriction.

It also clears a major hurdle for Russia’s track team to be declared compliant by that sport’s international governing body, one of the few to take a strong, consistent stand against doping.

Perhaps most importantly, hundreds of athletes and dozens of world anti-doping leaders see it as a stinging rebuke to the ideal of fair play.

“WADA’s decision to reinstate Russia represents the greatest treachery against clean athletes in Olympic history,” said Jim Walden, the attorney for Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Moscow lab director who exposed much of the Russian scheme.

WADA had been telegraphing the move since Sept. 14, when it released the recommendation of its compliance review committee. Olympic champion Beckie Scott resigned from that committee afterward.

“I’m profoundly disappointed,” Scott said to Canadian broadcaster CBC after the decision. “I feel this was an opportunity for WADA, and they have dealt a devastating blow to clean sport. I’m quite dismayed.”

Even in Russia, where the news was welcomed, it came with a sense that there’s still work to be done.

“These questions will always follow us,” said RUSADA CEO Yuri Ganus, whose appointment to the job was part of the housecleaning at the agency that WADA demanded. “These aren’t the kind of skeletons which can lie unnoticed in the closet. These are the skeletons which will be banging on the closet door all the time.”

The two biggest roadblocks to RUSADA’s reinstatement involved the country accepting findings from a report by investigator Richard McLaren that concluded the government had engineered the doping scandal to win medals at the Sochi Olympics. It also involved Russia agreeing to hand over a trove of data and samples that could be used to corroborate potential doping violations that stemmed from the cheating.

Over a summer’s worth of correspondence between WADA leaders and Russia’s sports minister about how to bridge the gap, a pattern emerged of WADA backing down from its initial requirements and, at one point, essentially asking Russia what it would be willing to say in a letter designed to satisfy the WADA review committee.

“We think that a small addition to the letter, if acceptable to you, could ensure that the letter is well received … and that a positive recommendation is provided,” WADA CEO Olivier Niggli wrote to sports minister Pavel Kolobkov in May in a letter obtained by BBC Sport .

In the end, Russia agreed to accept findings of an IOC-commissioned report that put less onus on the Russian government for the scheme, a move that Rodchenkov said earlier this week was done “for the pure purpose of protecting their top-level apparatchiks who destroyed the Olympic Games in Sochi.”

Russia also agreed to hand over the samples and data by Dec. 31. If it does not, RUSADA will again be declared noncompliant.

“Without this pragmatic approach, we would continue with the impasse and the laboratory data could have remained out of our reach indefinitely,” WADA president Craig Reedie said after Thursday’s executive committee meeting in Seychelles.

Critics said reinstating RUSADA before obtaining the data only amounts to accepting another promise from a country that hasn’t kept many over the five-year course of the scandal.

Travis Tygart, the CEO for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, called the decision “bewildering and inexplicable,” and urged a full revamping of WADA; Reedie also serves as a member of the IOC, which is one of the many conflicts of interest that bother critics of the agency.

“Let’s be clear: Absolutely nothing will be off the table for how we, the anti-doping community, begin the work of reforming WADA,” Tygart said.

Reedie said “WADA understands that this decision will not please everybody.”

“Clean athletes were denied places at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as other major events, and others were cheated of medals,” he said. “It is entirely understandable that they should be wary about the supposed rehabilitation of offenders.”