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Simona Halep makes U.S. Open history with first-round upset as top seed

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Simona Halep became the first No. 1 female seed to lose in the first round in U.S. Open history in the Open Era on Monday. Estonian Kaia Kanepi upset her 6-2, 6-4 in the tournament’s first match at the new Louis Armstrong Stadium.

“I cannot say much about this match, just that I didn’t really feel the ball,” Halep said. “But also, she played really strong and pushed me back, so it was tough.”

The U.S. Open had been the only Grand Slam where the top-seeded woman won her opening match every year of the 50-year Open Era.

The dubious upset happened three times at Wimbledon (Steffi Graf (1994), Martina Hingis (1999 and 2001) and once each at the Australian Open (Virginia Ruzici (1979)) and French Open (Angelique Kerber (2017)).

Halep, a 26-year-old Romanian, smashed and broke her racket on the court early in the second set and was given a warning. Halep fought from a break down to even the second set at 4-all before Kanepi broke again and then served it out.

U.S. OPEN: Scores | Men’s Draw | Women’s Draw

Halep has been ranked No. 1 for most of the last year since ascending to the spot in October. She became the second Romanian woman to win a Grand Slam at the French Open in the spring (after Ruzici) but has now lost in the first round of the U.S. Open two straight years.

Halep was beaten by a then-unseeded Maria Sharapova on the opening night of the 2017 U.S. Open when Sharapova was ranked No. 145 following her doping ban.

“I never play my best tennis here,” said Halep, who has made two U.S. Open quarterfinals, fewest of the four Slams.

Halep’s defeat Monday opens the draw for Serena Williams, the No. 17 seed eyeing her seventh U.S. Open singles title and record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. Williams and Halep could have played in the fourth round.

Now, the only major champion Williams could play before the quarterfinals is older sister Venus Williams, who beat 2004 U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 5-7, 6-3. That all-Williams match would be in the third round, their earliest Slam meeting since their first at the 1998 Australian Open.

Halep has now lost in the first round 12 times in her 34 career Grand Slams, granted most were between 2010-13, before Halep became a seeded player.

“Every player is struggling a little bit in the first round,” she said. “It’s always about the nerves. Even when you are there in the top, you feel the same nerves. You are human. So it’s the same thing. For me, it’s more difficult in the first rounds, because I’m more emotional. That’s why I need a good start.”

Kanepi, a 33-year-old former top-20 player, has been playing Grand Slam tennis since 2006, having reached six quarterfinals, including at the 2017 U.S. Open.

“Actually I felt more pressure, because I have to defend my [ranking] points [from 2017], so I didn’t feel really confident coming here playing the first seed,” Kanepi said after playing on an 80-plus-degree day. “I love being in New York. I like the city. I like the atmosphere in tournaments and in the city, also. And I like the weather: humid and hot.”

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Adam Jones, five-time MLB All-Star, becomes Olympic eligible

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Should the U.S. qualify for baseball’s Olympic return, a five-time MLB All-Star could be eligible for its roster in Tokyo. And he has interest.

Outfielder Adam Jones signed with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s domestic league, which, unlike MLB, will take an Olympic break next summer to allow players to take part in the first Olympic baseball tournament in 12 years.

Jones, 34, made no mention of Olympic eligibility in a social media post announcing the signing. His Instagram avatar is a photo of him in a Team USA jersey from the World Baseball Classic.

Jones’ agent later said that Jones does have interest in playing for the U.S. in Tokyo, should an American team qualify in the spring.

“To play over in Japan has always been a desire of Adam’s, and the timing worked out that the Olympics happens to be played in Tokyo the first year of his contract,” Jones’ agent wrote in an email. “It wasn’t one of the factors on his decision BUT more of a [sic] addition to the overall package to decide to go.”

Jones called being part of the U.S.’ 2017 WBC title, “probably the best experience of my life so far, especially with sports,” according to The Associated Press. He was one of five players to be on the U.S. team at each of the last two World Baseball Classics.

The U.S. still faces a difficult task to qualify for the Tokyo Games. It lost to Mexico last month in its first of up to three chances at qualifying tournaments, using a roster of mostly double-A and triple-A caliber players.

Major Leaguers are not expected to be made available for qualifying or for the Tokyo Games.

The next two qualifying tournaments will be in late March (an Americas qualifier in Arizona) and early April (a final, global qualifying event in Chinese Taipei). It remains to be seen how MLB clubs will go about releasing minor leaguers for a tournament that will take place during spring training.

Jones could become the third player with prior MLB All-Star experience to compete at the Olympics from any nation, joining Australian catcher Dave Nilsson and Canadian pitcher Jason Dickson.

Jones made five All-Star teams during an 11-year stint with the Baltimore Orioles from 2008-18 before playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.

Many players competed at the Olympics before making an MLB All-Star team, including Stephen Strasburg and Jason Giambi.

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Russia boxers to boycott Olympics if sanctions not lifted

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Russian boxers will only take part in the Tokyo Olympics if doping sanctions forcing them to compete as neutral athletes are overturned, the general secretary of the Russian Boxing Federation told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Umar Kremlev said he has spoken with the Olympic boxing team and they “unanimously” rejected the conditions laid out by the World Anti-Doping Agency as punishment for manipulating doping data.

The WADA sanctions, announced on Monday, ban the use of the Russian team name, flag or anthem at a range of major sports competitions over the next four years, including next year’s Olympics.

“They said we won’t go without our flag and anthem,” Kremlev said. “We aren’t going for medals, but for that feeling that I brought the highest honor home for my country.”

Separately, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament said Russia could create an alternative to the Olympics.

“This ruling show the clear crisis in international sports institutions. I believe that Russia could host its own games at home,” Valentina Matvienko said in comments reported by the Interfax news agency.

There is a precedent. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union refused to compete in the Olympics and hosted its own Spartakiads — named after the ancient rebel slave Spartacus — with a strong socialist slant. However, the Soviet Union began competing at the Olympics in 1952 and Russians generally take great pride in the country’s Olympic achievements since then.

If the sanctions aren’t overturned, Kremlev said Russian boxers would prefer to turn pro rather than compete at the Olympics.

“A world champion (in professional boxing) is better known than an Olympic champion,” Kremlev said, adding the Russian anthem would be played before pro title fights.

Kremlev said boxers are being asked to shoulder the blame for offenses committed in other sports. He said they would still stay at home even if Russia’s athletes in other sports decided to take part.

“If other sports are guilty and people have breached the WADA code, why are we punished?” he said. “We are for honest sport and against doping. We want our sport to be clean … If someone breaks the rules, we push them out.”

Russia is a major power in amateur and Olympic boxing. It hosted both men’s and women’s world championships this year, finishing at the top of the medals table at the women’s event and second in the men’s championships. The International Olympic Committee has taken direct charge of boxing at the Tokyo Olympics after criticizing chronic financial problems and infighting at the International Boxing Association.

Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov talked up Russia’s chances of overturning the WADA sanctions.

“I think that there is every basis to appeal the decision, because our experts have presented their position, and they have the same database as WADA does,” Kolobkov said in comments reported by state news agency TASS. “There is an answer to every question and the whole process is ahead of us.”

The official decision on whether to dispute the sanctions will be made on Dec. 19 by the Russian anti-doping agency’s supervisory board, but senior figures, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have signaled their preference for taking the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

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