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Novak Djokovic upset at French Open; all-American women’s semifinal set

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PARIS (AP) — Novak Djokovic’s neck was bothering him. Then his right leg was.

The way he faltered at the most crucial of moments in the French Open quarterfinals Tuesday might have hurt him the most against an opponent who never won a Grand Slam match until last week and once was handed a match-fixing suspension later overturned on appeal.

At the site of his 12th and most recent major title, which came two years ago, Djokovic was stunned by 72nd-ranked Marco Cecchinato of Italy 6-3, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 7-6 (11) in a rollicking match filled with long points and plenty of drama.

“He held his nerves amazingly well in important moments,” acknowledged Djokovic, who said he isn’t certain whether he will play at Wimbledon.

Djokovic served for the fourth set at 5-3 but got broken. He then held three set points in the tiebreaker but couldn’t convert any.

“It’s a pity I could not capitalize on the chances I had,” Djokovic said.

Cecchinato (it’s pronounced cheh-key-NAH’-toe) came through on his fourth match point, looping in a backhand return winner as Djokovic tried to surprise him with a serve-and-volley attempt. Cecchinato, who dropped onto his back on the clay after winning, is the lowest-ranked man to get to the semifinals in Paris in 19 years — and about as unlikely as anyone to get this far at a big tournament.

Cecchinato became the first man to go into a Grand Slam with no main-draw wins at any Slam and reach the semifinals since Dutch Cinderfella Martin Verkerk made the 2003 French Open final. He’s also the first Italian man to reach a Grand Slam singles semifinal in 40 years.

Told in an on-court interview that he wasn’t dreaming, Cecchinato responded: “Are you sure?”

The 25-year-old from Sicily was suspended for 18 months and fined 40,000 euros (about $45,000) by his national federation in July 2016, accused of losing on purpose at a lower-tier Challenger event in Morocco a year earlier. Eventually, the Italian Olympic Committee announced that sanctions were dropped on a technicality.

Cecchinato has never won a tour-level match on a surface other than red clay; as it is, he entered this season with a career record of 4-23.

He arrived at Roland Garros with a 0-4 mark in the majors, and dropped the first two sets in the first round before coming all the way back to win 10-8 in the fifth. Since then, employing a smooth one-handed backhand, he has beaten players seeded No. 8 (David Goffin) and No. 10 (Pablo Carreno Busta), before adding former No. 1 Djokovic to his list.

Next up: No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem of Austria, who made it to his third consecutive French Open semifinal by beating No. 2 Alexander Zverev of Germany 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 earlier Tuesday.

In the women’s quarterfinals, No. 10 Sloane Stephens beat No. 14 Daria Kasatkina of Russia 6-3, 6-1, and No. 13 Madison Keys eliminated unseeded Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan 7-6 (5), 6-4. Stephens beat Keys in the U.S. Open final last September, and their rematch on Thursday will be the first all-American women’s semifinal at the French Open since Serena Williams defeated Jennifer Capriati in 2002.

Cecchinato and Djokovic know each other well: They have practiced together in Monte Carlo, where Cecchinato trains at a tennis academy and Djokovic has a home.

No one, though, could have seen this one coming. Perhaps the most remarkable part of this result was that Djokovic repeatedly failed to close out the fourth set and force a fifth.

Djokovic, who missed the last half of 2017 with right elbow trouble and had surgery in February, is clearly not at the height of his power. Indeed, his seeding of No. 20 was his lowest at any Grand Slam tournament in a dozen years.

Still, Djokovic did appear to be gathering momentum, taking the third set and moving out to a lead in the fourth. He could not do enough to end Cecchinato’s marvelous run, though.

NBC, NBCSports.com/live and NBC Sports app coverage of the French Open continues with the women’s semifinals Thursday at 11 a.m. across all time zones.

French Open Semifinals
Women
(1) Halep/(12) Kerber – (3) Muguruza/(28) Sharapova 
(13) Madison Keys – (10) Sloane Stephens

Men
(1) Nadal/(11) Schwartzman – (3) Cilic/(5) Del Potro
Marco Cecchinato – (7) Dominic Thiem

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

Transgender track and field athletes now face same standard that has kept out Caster Semenya

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Transgender athletes will have to reduce their testosterone level to the same level applied to Caster Semenya and other athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD), under a new policy enacted by World Athletics (formerly the IAAF).

As with DSD athletes, the threshold for middle-distance runners has been lowered from 10 nanomoles per liter to 5.

“These Regulations have been drafted to align with the Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development) and include updates to reflect current medical standards and the legal framework,” World Athletics said in announcing the latest IAAF Council decisions.

The IAAF claimed a similar basis in medical standards last year when it announced its updated policy on DSD athletes: “No female would have serum levels of natural testosterone at 5 nmol/L or above unless they have DSD or a tumour.”

Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion at 800 meters, challenged that limit in the Court of Arbitration for Sport but lost her case in May. Given a brief reprieve by a Swiss court, she ran the fastest 800-meter time of the year (1:54.98), but a higher court overruled her appeal. She did not compete in the recent world championships.

MORE: Semenya laments lack of support

Another athlete affected by the DSD policy, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Margaret Wambui, told the Olympic Channel she was struggling to find a new direction after the rule was passed.

“It affected me a lot,” Wambui said. “I didn’t want to train or do anything. …

“Caster has fought for us. She has done her level best. She has tried, but we failed.”

VIDEO: Wambui: “No one chose to be born the way they are”

Transgender athletes have not yet been prominent in international track and field, though controversies have arisen at other levels, particularly in a Connecticut case in which high school athletes filed a Title IX complaint after losing to transgender athletes. The athletes who filed the claim said they were potentially at a disadvantage in terms of earning college scholarships.

The new World Athletics policy insists that its stipulations for transgender athletes are actually generous. “The decision limit also takes into consideration that, for clinical purposes, the Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline for Endocrine Treatment of Gender-Dysphoric/Gender-Incongruent Persons recommends that transgender females should have serum testosterone levels of less than 50 ng/dL (i.e. approximately 1.7 nmol/L).”

But while DSD and transgender athletes face different issues, Semenya and other DSD athletes have set a precedent by withdrawing from competition rather than bring their levels down to the 5 nmol/L standard. In CAS proceedings, Semenya said she experienced regular fevers, night sweats, significant weight gain and constant abdominal pain while taking medication to meet the previous standard of 10 nmol/L.

The International Olympic Committee also put a 10 nmol/L limit in place for both transgender and DSD athletes in 2015. Some athletes have complained that transgender athletes still have an unfair advantage under that policy.

The World Athletics policy also addresses transgender men, granting them permission to take regulated testosterone supplements to bring levels within a typical range for men.

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U.S. men’s volleyball extends medal streak with bronze in World Cup

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With its medal-winning streak in jeopardy, the defending champion U.S. men’s volleyball team beat Egypt 22-25, 25-16, 25-14, 25-13 on Tuesday in Hiroshima, Japan. Poland beat Iran later in the day to slip past the U.S. for silver behind unbeaten Brazil.

The experienced U.S. men have claimed a medal in the last four major international tournaments — gold in the 2015 World Cup, bronze in the 2016 Olympics, bronze in the 2018 world championships and bronze in this year’s World Cup. The men also placed second in the 2019 Nations League and third in the first Nations League in 2018, though the team failed to medal in the last two editions of the World League in 2016 and 2017.

Most importantly for next year, the U.S. men swept their Olympic qualification tournament in August.

Micah Christenson was named best setter of the tournament, as he was in the 2015 tournament and in the 2018 world championships. Middle blocker Max Holt was also named to the tournament “Dream Team.

VIDEO: U.S.-Egypt highlights

The U.S. team’s World Cup started with a five-set loss to Argentina, which went on to finish fifth. The U.S. rebounded to beat Italy, world champion Poland, host Japan, Tunisia and Iran before losing to eventual champion Brazil. Border rival Canada took the U.S. to five sets, but sweeps against Australia and Brazil put the team in position to clinch its medal.

Heading into next year’s Olympics, the U.S. team has several internationally accomplished players. In addition to Christenson’s multiple awards, Matt Anderson was named the best opposite hitter in the world championship and Nations League in 2018, and Aaron Russell was named to the Dream Team in the 2016 Olympics. Russell, playing for Italian team Trentino, also was named MVP of the World Club Championship in December.

The U.S. women’s team also won two medals this year gold in the Nations League, silver in the World Cup and swept its own qualification tournament.

This success comes despite the lack of a professional league in the United States. USA volleyball announced last week it has processed paperwork for 257 women and 82 men to play in foreign leagues for the 2019-20, with more players to follow.

The World Cup is contested every four years, the year before the Olympics. The world championship takes place in even non-Olympic years. Qualification for the World Cup is more difficult — only 12 teams reach the tournament, while 24 teams take part in the world championship. 

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