Serena Williams makes U.S. Open final, emotional in on-court interview

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NEW YORK — Serena Williams is back in the U.S. Open final, one year after childbirth and life-threatening complications. One match win from tying the career Grand Slam singles titles record.

The 23-time major champion swept Latvian Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 6-0 in Thursday’s semifinal to reach her second straight Slam final and first in Queens since 2014.

“A year ago, I was fighting, for literally my life in the hospital after I had the baby,” Williams said, her voice cracking in emotion, on court after winning 12 of the last 13 games. “So, every day I step out on this court, I am so grateful that I have an opportunity to play this sport, you know? No matter what happens in any match, semis, finals, I just feel like I’ve already won.”

She’ll face Naomi Osaka, one of the most promising players of the next generation, in the final Saturday at 4 p.m. ET.

Osaka, the first Japanese woman in a Slam final in the 51-year Open Era, beat 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys 6-2, 6-4 later Thursday.

Keys was 0 for 13 on break points, squandering six of them on one game alone in the second set. How was Osaka able to hold her off?

“This is going to sound really bad, but I was just thinking, I really want to play Serena,” said Osaka, the soft-spoken, uniquely witted daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father who moved from Japan to the U.S. at age 3.

The rising 20-year-old Osaka swept Williams in their only meeting in March, though it was just Williams’ second tournament back from maternity leave. “I definitely wasn’t at my best,” Williams said Thursday. “I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation.”

“She’s the main reason why I started playing tennis,” Osaka said then, noting it took three games to overcome the nerves. “To detach myself a little bit from thinking that I’m playing against her and just try to think I’m playing against just a regular opponent was a little bit hard.”

Williams said the respect is mutual.

“These young ladies have been playing way longer consistently [than my comeback], so I just feel like they’re at a little bit of an advantage,” she said of Osaka and Keys while they were playing. “But I have an advantage of I have nothing to lose.”

The 16-year age difference between finalists is the second-largest in a women’s Grand Slam final, trailing only the 1991 U.S. Open between Martina Navratilova (34) and Monica Seles (17).

“I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam,” Osaka said. “I don’t dream to lose.”

Osaka won the sport’s fifth major — Indian Wells — in March, but came into the U.S. Open having lost three straight matches. She cried in the locker room at her last tournament.

“Because I thought, Wow, I’m really bad at tennis,” she said.

Williams has another name on her mind: Margaret Court, the 1960s and ’70s Australian star who won 24 Grand Slam singles titles. Asterisk: Court won 11 Australian Opens when many of the world’s top players did not play the event.

At 36 (three weeks from 37), Williams would become the oldest U.S. Open singles champion in the Open Era (Ken Rosewall) and the oldest overall since 1926.

And 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.

Williams was bedridden this time last year after giving birth to daughter Olympia on Sept. 1. The pregnancy was followed by pulmonary embolism complications that confined her to bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

She is 15-1 in Grand Slam singles matches since her return, making the fourth round of the French Open before withdrawing with a pectoral muscle injury and taking runner-up at Wimbledon to Angelique Kerber.

“To come this far so fast, I’m just beginning, you guys, this has only been a few months,” Williams said. “I’m really looking forward to the rest of the year, next year. I’m really looking forward to the possibilities.”

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

Marie-Philip Poulin is first female hockey player to win Canada Athlete of the Year

Marie-Philip Poulin
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Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.

Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.

Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.

Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.

Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.

In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.

The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.

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‘Her eyes would obliterate you’: Bold Isabeau Levito faces skating idol at Grand Prix Final

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The highlight of Isabeau Levito’s season so far came at Skate America in October.

It wasn’t the silver medal Levito won there, in her debut on figure skating’s senior Grand Prix circuit.

It was meeting the reigning world champion – and 2022 Skate America winner – Kaori Sakamoto of Japan.

“She is one of my idols,” Levito said of Sakamoto, who is also the 2022 Olympic bronze medalist.  “Right before her long program at worlds, you could see she was determined and strong and fierce.  Her eyes would obliterate you.

“That look and that fierceness and determination. . .I admire it so much, and I hope to have it someday.”

At only 15, Levito already belies her delicacy of movement on the ice with such powerful determination to reach her aspirations that she gets to meet Sakamoto again this week at the Grand Prix Final in Torino, Italy, where the senior women’s event begins Friday.

“One of my goals for this season was to make the Final, and I’m very glad I reached it,” she said.

She became the youngest U.S. skater to make the final since 14-year-old Caroline Zhang in 2007. (The minimum age has since been raised for all senior international events.) Levito is three years younger than any of the other five qualifiers this year, four of whom are in their 20s.

And her goal there?

“To make the podium,” Levito said.

If she does that, Levito would be the first U.S. woman to make the podium at the Grand Prix Final since Ashley Wagner won bronze in 2014.

Levito had a similar aim for her senior debut at the U.S. Championships last season, when her stated goal was to make the podium.  In the absence of two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who withdrew with Covid after edging Levito for third in the short program, Levito took second in the free skate and won the bronze medal.

Levito earned one of the six women’s places in the Final by also winning silver at her second Grand Prix event, the MK John Wilson Trophy in England last month.  Her performances there were her best of the year internationally, with personal-best scores for the total and free skate and a season’s best in the short program.

“I think she is progressing very well,” said her coach, Yulia Kuznetsova.

While comparing scores is tricky because of different judging panels, the best scores this season for each of the six women in the Final are separated by fewer than five points, led by Sakamoto at 217.61, with Levito fourth at 215.74.  The closeness of the field is reflected by having five different winners in the six “regular season” Grand Prix events, with Mai Mihara of Japan as the only double winner.

The last time the Grand Prix Final was held, in 2019, three skaters were double winners, accounting for all six regular-season wins. The Covid pandemic forced cancellation in 2020 and 2021.

It’s easy to forget that last spring, after winning the World Junior Championships, Levito was unsure about whether she would move up to the senior level internationally.

“I really wasn’t the person making that decision,” she said. “Yulia and people from U.S. Figure Skating came to that decision, and I was like, `Okay, seniors, sure.’’’

Kuznetsova, who has coached Levito for 11 years, said it was time for the skater to try new challenges.

“Of course, in the beginning we were a little (curious) about how we were going to be judged in moving from juniors to seniors, but after her first international (event), we understood we were in a pretty good position.  We feel confident and comfortable, and we just learn from competition to competition.”

Figure skating has a tradition of young skaters needing to pay their dues with judges, most often reflected in the more subjective program component scores (PCS), sometimes referred to as the “artistic” mark.  Levito’s mean PCS marks this season have been respectably in the mid-8s (out of perfect 10s), with Sakamoto the only skater to have her mean PCS in the low 9s.

The need to raise her PCS and the ban of the Russian female jump phenoms from international competition because of their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine mean Levito has sensibly put quadruple jumps and triple Axels on the back burner.  Russian women had won gold at five of the last six Grand Prix Finals and 13 of the 18 medals.

RELATED: 2022 Grand Prix Final figure skating TV, live stream schedule

Only one woman, Rion Sumiyashi of Japan, has tried a quad in a senior event this season, and her three attempts were all badly flawed.

“Developing my skating and maturing are higher on my priorities,” Levito said.  “A triple Axel and/or quads will come in time.  We’re not trying to rush the process.”

At Kuznetsova’s behest, one of the world’s most acclaimed artists on ice, 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy, spent time last spring at the New Jersey rink where Levito trains. Kuznetsova said Kostner was there for a week.

Levito posted a photo with Kostner on Instagram in June with a caption that read,  “It was a wonderful experience skating with you!”  Yet she and Kuznetsova are reluctant to discuss Kostner’s visit, with the coach saying only, “We really didn’t take any lessons (from Carolina).”

“I (made contact with) Isabeau through a mutual friend in 2018, and I’ve been in contact with her and her family ever since,” Kostner said in a text message.

“This spring I was in the area and I popped by for a visit. After many phone calls, we finally met in person.  I love sharing my experience with her and am thrilled to see her grow as a skater and as a young woman.”

Maybe Team Levito simply wanted even more of a karmic connection with Italy, home to not only this Grand Prix Final but the 2026 Winter Olympics, with figure skating to be held in Milan.  The skater, a home schooler who will finish the tenth grade this month, has been brushing up on Italian with help from both Duolingo and her mother, Chiara Garberi, a native of Milan who moved from Italy to the United States in 1997.

“Growing up, my mother always spoke to me in Italian, and I would reply in English,” Levito said.  “Now I think, `Why did I do that?’  I still understand everything in Italian, but when I open my mouth to speak, a lot of the vocabulary escapes me.  I’m kind of relearning Italian.  I’m getting there.”

Levito is likely to get to the 2026 Olympics, even if such predictions are risky with more than three years before those next Winter Games.  At this point, with all three U.S. women’s singles skaters from the 2022 Olympic team having stopped competing, either permanently or temporarily, Levito is clearly the leading U.S. woman.

That means she will go to the 2023 U.S. Championships as the title favorite.  It is a far different position from last season, when Levito was not old enough for Olympic consideration and could skate without the pressure of trying to make the team.

“I’m not concerned about the attention from being a favorite,” she said.  “I’m just really excited to hopefully do better than last year.”

If that is Levito’s goal, figure on her being determined enough to make it.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.