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U.S. softball opens world champs with Olympic return on its mind

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Monica Abbott threw the final U.S. pitch at the last Olympic softball game, nearly 10 years ago.

Over the next 10 days, Abbott can help the U.S. softball team return to the Olympics by winning the world championship to secure the first available spot in the six-nation Tokyo 2020 tournament (not counting automatically qualified host nation Japan).

Softball returns to the Games after 12 years out of the Olympic program. It is not assured to remain in the Games for Paris 2024 and beyond, but what’s at stake the next two weeks makes this tournament arguably the biggest in the sport’s history aside from an Olympics.

“This world championship is more important than when I played,” said U.S. assistant coach Laura Berg, the only American to play all four previous Olympic softball tournaments from 1996 through 2008, earning three golds and one silver.

Berg noted that fewer nations are in the 2020 Olympic field (six) than at previous Olympics (eight) and that only the world champion crowned Aug. 12 in Chiba, Japan, qualifies for Tokyo 2020. (If Japan wins, then the runner-up qualifies.) For 2008, the top four nations from the 2006 Worlds made the Olympic field.

Continental tournaments in 2019 will round out the Olympic field, but nobody wants to wait another year for a last-chance qualifier. Some may see worlds as the beginning of the Olympic run-up. Not Berg. Not the Americans.

“These players have had it in their minds ever since softball got back in,” on Aug. 3, 2016, Berg said.

Baseball and softball were cut from the Olympic program by an IOC members vote in 2005, the first sports axed from the Olympics since polo in 1936. A total of 105 IOC members were eligible to vote “yay” or “nay” on all Olympic sports. A majority was needed to remain in the Games.

Baseball went down 54-50. Softball was 52-52. One member abstained from each vote — American Jim Easton, who cited conflict of interest as he owned Easton Sports, best known for making baseball and softball bats. Had Easton voted for softball, it would still be in the Olympics. Had anybody switched in favor of softball, it would still be in the Olympics.

Critics said softball wasn’t global enough. Not popular in Europe. That the U.S. dominated. With the Olympic program capped at 28 sports at the time, cutting two sports would allow for two new ones to be added. That didn’t happen for 2012, but golf and rugby got onto the 2016 Olympic program.

Softball’s backers — led by longtime International Softball Federation president Don Porter — experienced further heartbreak when the IOC voted it down again in 2006 and 2009 (losing to rugby and golf for the Rio Games).

In 2013, baseball and softball proposed a joint bid with one sport opening for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics. It lost a vote against wrestling and squash, with wrestling keeping its place in the Games after reforms. Wrestling: 49 votes. Baseball-softball: 24 votes. Squash: 22 votes.

“It’s almost like taking a bullet over and over and over again,” Abbott said.

Softball and other sports received new life for the 2020 Olympics when the IOC in December 2014 approved Agenda 2020, which included a provision that an Olympic host city could propose sports to be added for its edition of the Games, starting with Tokyo 2020.

Baseball and softball are among the most popular sports in Japan. Tokyo organizers submitted baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing in 2015. The IOC approved their inclusion for 2020, two days before the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“There was a sense of joy, happiness and also relief,” said Abbott, who watched the presentation and vote on a smartphone stream in an airport and on board a Southwest flight. “Yes, finally, they gave us a chance. … Tears of relief. Tears of joy. And tears of oh my gosh, we did it.”

Abbott was the youngest player on the 2008 Olympic team at age 23, coming off a record-shattering career at Tennessee. She beat Japan in the 2008 Olympic semifinals, then a day later relieved Cat Osterman in the gold-medal game won by the Japanese.

“Afterwards there was this sense that the last [Olympics] pitch was thrown,” said Abbott, the only Olympian on the world championship roster and the oldest player by nearly five years. “No. 1, we didn’t win, we didn’t do what we needed to do, but a sense of sadness and grief because that was going to be it.”

Abbott said her pitching career was saved by the opportunity to move to Japan after the Beijing Games and play in its professional league for a team sponsored by Toyota.

She’s now on her 10th season in the world’s most competitive league. She also suits up in the National Pro Fastpitch League in the U.S. (famously signing the league’s first $1 million contract with the Conroe (Texas) Scrap Yard Dawgs in 2016, spread over six years).

She skipped worlds in 2012, 2014 and 2016 in favor of playing in the NPF and promoting softball in the U.S.

The U.S. and Japan met in each of the last six world championship finals dating to 2002. If that’s the case next week, then the U.S. will clinch an Olympic berth before the first pitch of the gold-medal game.

“She’s got a chip on her shoulder,” Berg said of Abbott. “She wants to be the one with the ball in her hands in the gold-medal game in 2020.”

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Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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