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 recused from each vote — American Jim Easton, who cited conflict of interest as he owned Easton Sports, best known for making baseball and softball bats. One other member abstained. 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.”

MORE: 49-year-old Olympic champion plays first event in 10 years

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2023 French Open men’s singles draw, scores

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The French Open men’s singles draw is missing injured 14-time champion Rafael Nadal for the first time since 2004, leaving the Coupe des Mousquetaires ripe for the taking.

The tournament airs live on NBC Sports, Peacock and Tennis Channel through championship points in Paris.

Novak Djokovic is not only bidding for a third crown at Roland Garros, but also to lift a 23rd Grand Slam singles trophy to break his tie with Nadal for the most in men’s history.

FRENCH OPEN: Broadcast Schedule | Women’s Draw

But the No. 1 seed is Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, who won last year’s U.S. Open to become, at 19, the youngest man to win a major since Nadal’s first French Open title in 2005.

Now Alcaraz looks to become the second-youngest man to win at Roland Garros since 1989, after Nadal of course.

Alcaraz missed the Australian Open in January due to a right leg injury, but since went 30-3 with four titles. Notably, he has not faced Djokovic this year. They could meet in the semifinals.

Russian Daniil Medvedev, the No. 2 seed, was upset in the first round by 172nd-ranked Brazilian qualifier Thiago Seyboth Wild. It marked the first time a men’s top-two seed lost in the first round of any major since 2003 Wimbledon (Ivo Karlovic d. Lleyton Hewitt).

All of the American men lost before the fourth round. The last U.S. man to make the French Open quarterfinals was Andre Agassi in 2003.

MORE: All you need to know for 2023 French Open

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2023 French Open Men’s Singles Draw

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Coco Gauff, Iga Swiatek set French Open rematch

Coco Gauff French Open
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Coco Gauff swept into the French Open quarterfinals, where she plays Iga Swiatek in a rematch of last year’s final.

Gauff, the sixth seed, beat 100th-ranked Slovakian Anna Karolina Schmiedlova 7-5, 6-2 in the fourth round. She next plays the top seed Swiatek, who later Monday advanced after 66th-ranked Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko retired down 5-1 after taking a medical timeout due to illness.

Gauff earned a 37th consecutive win over a player ranked outside the top 50, dating to February 2022. She hasn’t faced a player in the world top 60 in four matches at Roland Garros, but the degree of difficulty ratchets up in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

Swiatek won all 12 sets she’s played against Gauff, who at 19 is the only teenager in the top 49 in the world. Gauff said last week that there’s no point in revisiting last year’s final — a 6-1, 6-3 affair — but said Monday that she should rewatch that match because they haven’t met on clay since.

“I don’t want to make the final my biggest accomplishment,” she said. “Since last year I have been wanting to play her, especially at this tournament. I figured that it was going to happen, because I figured I was going to do well, and she was going to do well.

“The way my career has gone so far, if I see a level, and if I’m not quite there at that level, I know I have to improve, and I feel like you don’t really know what you have to improve on until you see that level.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Also Monday, No. 7 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia dispatched 36th-ranked American Bernarda Pera 6-3, 6-1, breaking all eight of Pera’s service games.

Jabeur, runner-up at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, has now reached the quarterfinals of all four majors.

Jabeur next faces 14th-seeded Beatriz Haddad Maia, who won 6-7 (3), 6-3, 7-5 over Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo, who played on a protected ranking of 68. Haddad Maia became the second Brazilian woman to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal in the Open Era (since 1968) after Maria Bueno, who won seven majors from 1959-1966.

Pera, a 28 year-old born in Croatia, was the oldest U.S. singles player to make the fourth round of a major for the first time since Jill Craybas at 2005 Wimbledon. Her defeat left Gauff as the lone American singles player remaining out of the 35 entered in the main draws.

The last American to win a major singles title was Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major drought matches the longest in history (since 1877) for American men and women combined.

In the men’s draw, 2022 French Open runner-up Casper Ruud reached the quarterfinals by beating 35th-ranked Chilean Nicolas Jarry 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-5. He’ll next play sixth seed Holger Rune of Denmark, a 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (7) winner over 23rd seed Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina.

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