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Serena Williams makes Wimbledon final, 10 months after childbirth

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Serena Williams longs to tell her daughter how she bound her longtime label, champion, with her newer one, mother. She’s one match from making that happen, 10 months after childbirth.

Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam singles winner and seven times at Wimbledon, advanced to Saturday’s Wimbledon final against former No. 1 Angelique Kerber with a dominant 6-2, 6-4 win over German Julia Görges on Thursday.

“It’s crazy. I don’t even know how to feel, you know, because literally, didn’t expect to do this well in my fourth tournament back,” said Williams, who returned to tournament play in March after a 13-month absence. “When I don’t have anything to lose, I just can play so free, and that’s kind of what I’m doing.”

Williams had daughter Olympia on Sept. 1, followed by pulmonary embolism complications that left her bedridden for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

“Almost didn’t make it,” she said. “I couldn’t even walk to my mailbox, so it’s definitely not normal for me to be in a Wimbledon final.”

On Saturday, Williams can match Australian Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles and move one shy of Martina Navratilova‘s record nine Wimbledons.

Williams has coveted Court’s record since breaking Steffi Graf‘s Open Era mark with her last title at the 2017 Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant. But she insisted Friday that Court’s 24 has not crossed her mind as she’s dropped one set in six matches.

“I’ve probably forgot about it,” Williams said. “That’s a good thing because I put so much pressure on myself when I was trying to get to 18 [tying Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert] and the rest. It was so much. But as I said in the past couple years, I don’t want to limit myself, and I think that’s what I was doing in the past. … I want to get as many as I can.”

The other finalist knows what it’s like to beat Williams for a major title.

Kerber, the 2016 Australian Open and U.S. Open winner, beat 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 6-3 in Thursday’s early semifinal. Williams swept Kerber 7-5, 6-3 in their last meeting in the 2016 Wimbledon final and said she’s been watching the German play well the last two weeks.

“A lot of people, I don’t think in the beginning of the tournament have been looking at her,” Williams said of the 11th seed Kerber, who was the highest-ranked player left after the top 10 seeds were eliminated before the quarterfinals for the first time in Grand Slam history. “She’s playing so well, and she’s incredibly confident. So I have to be ready for the match of my life.”

Williams was given the 25th seed, up from her No. 181 ranking due to maternity leave, and would move into the top 20 with the title. But recall that Kerber upset Williams in the 2016 Australian Open final, one of two Williams losses in her 12 Grand Slam finals since the start of 2012.

“It is a completely new match,” said Kerber, who failed to make a Grand Slam quarterfinal in 2017, won zero tournaments, fell from No. 1 to 21 and changed coaches. “We both learned a lot. She’s coming back, and for me also, I’m coming back from 2017.”

Williams can become the second mother in the last 38 years to win a Grand Slam singles title. Belgian Kim Clijsters captured the 2009 U.S. Open, 18 months after childbirth, then added two more Grand Slam titles before retiring in 2012.

“Whatever happens, honestly, it’s an incredible effort from me and just good motivation to keep going for the rest of our career,” Williams said.

Williams, who turns 37 on Sept. 26, sounds like she plans on going for a while longer. And though her footwork has improved in these last four months, she can take motivation from Olympia’s swifter maturation.

“She’s trying to go faster than her body will allow her to go,” Williams said, smiling. “I was expecting a few more baby steps myself, but I still feel like I’m in that baby-step place. I’ve said it all week, this is only my fourth tournament back, but every time I go out there I want to take a giant step forward.”

Wimbledon continues Friday with the men’s semifinals: Rafael Nadal playing Novak Djokovic for a 52nd time, most between two men in the Open Era (Djokovic leads 26-25), and American John Isner against South African Kevin Anderson in a match of first-time Wimbledon semifinalists.

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2019 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships TV schedule

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NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold combine to air live daily coverage of the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, starting Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

The top three per individual event are in line to qualify for the world championships in Doha in late September and early October, should they have the world standard time or mark.

Sprint trio Christian Coleman (100m and 200m), Noah Lyles (200m) and Michael Norman (400m) headline the event. Each is 23 or younger and fastest in the world this year in his primary event.

Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin represent the veterans. Felix, a 33-year-old with 17 combined Olympic and world titles, is entered in her first meet since having daughter Camryn via emergency C-section at 32 weeks on Nov. 28.

Gatlin, 37, has a bye into worlds as the defending 100m champion. He could be Coleman’s biggest threat in the 100m after breaking 9.9 seconds for the first time since the Rio Olympics.

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Day Time (ET) Network Key Events
Thursday 3:45-11 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m first round, 10,000m finals
Friday 1:30-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m finals, 400m semifinals
7-9 p.m. NBCSN
Saturday 2-6 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 400m, women’s 1500m, 100m hurdles
4-6 p.m. NBC
Sunday 4-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 200m, men’s 1500m, 110m hurdles
7-8 p.m. NBCSN
8-9 p.m. NBC

Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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