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Is Diana Taurasi the GOAT? Who is the best player today? Kara Lawson reflects on FIBA World Cup

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After the U.S. women’s basketball team again won the biggest tournament outside of the Olympics — the FIBA World Cup — 2008 Olympian and NBC Sports Washington Wizards TV analyst Kara Lawson discussed noteworthy topics within the U.S. team and the sport abroad with Tokyo 2020 in mind (questions and answers lightly edited for clarity) …

OlympicTalk: Overall impressions from worlds aside from more U.S. dominance?

Lawson: The turnover from 2016 in Rio to this year’s roster. Six players that helped the U.S. win gold [at the Olympics — Tamika Catchings (retired), Lindsay Whalen (retired), Seimone AugustusSylvia FowlesAngel McCoughtry and Maya Moore (all resting)] now turned over to six new players. They’re starting to integrate that next generation of players like A’ja Wilson, Jewell Loyd. Obviously Breanna Stewart was on the 2016 team, but was a young player then. She’s still young, but she’s asserted her dominance. You can see her becoming a focal point. There will probably be more tweaks [for Tokyo 2020]. I would anticipate seeing some of the familiar faces that we didn’t see in 2018. The U.S. is well positioned to bring home a seventh straight gold medal.

OlympicTalk: Who is the world’s best player?

Lawson: I would say probably Breanna Stewart [WNBA and FIBA World Cup MVP]. Also, the way Brittney Griner played inside. Also Diana Taurasi. To me those are the three players. You look at their performance in the World Cup. They’re able to change the game in different ways. Brittney Griner’s stats aren’t eye-popping, but what she was able to do was be the backstop back there and really solidify the U.S.’ defensive prowess, then offensively in the semis and finals. Stewart and her all-around game playing out of position for most of the tournament [at small forward]. Of course you had the experience of Taurasi, how she played in the semifinal, particularly out of halftime [when the U.S. led by just one point over Belgium] and the third quarter.

OlympicTalk: What happens with the starting lineup — in particular Stewart at the three — when Maya Moore returns and Elena Delle Donne isn’t coming off a knee injury?

Lawson: That’s going to be something the committee has to look at going forward. Stewart’s going to be on the floor. What position she is, it really doesn’t matter. But there are a lot of post-up players. With Delle Donne not fully healthy [at worlds] and how strong this team was, if she’s healthy that’s a whole new ballgame. There’s a lot of options, and they can bend their rotation any way they want to go. If Maya Moore’s back in the mix, that helps to upgrade this roster’s wing depth and obviously athleticism and shooting. There were definitely some flaws in the roster in terms of wing depth not a ton of athleticism at guard.

OlympicTalk: Is Diana Taurasi, now with seven global gold medals in addition to her club accolades and likely one final Olympics in 2020, the greatest player of all time? 

Lawson: She’s definitely in the GOAT conversation for sure with the likes of Cheryl MillerLisa LeslieTamika Catchings. At every level, she has achieved what those stars have or more. There is a winning component to a GOAT conversation. By the end her college career, she put herself in position to be talked about as one of the greatest college players ever [three NCAA titles at UConn]. In the WNBA, it took her four years to make the playoffs, but in her first year in the playoffs she won a championship. You look at all the international success, not just with the U.S. team but the EuroLeague, then playing at this level at this age [36], it’s incredible. I don’t know if you’re going to find a better résumé than what Diana Taurasi has to be the greatest of all time. In the top group of players, you can say this player or that player was a better player, and those are all reasonable arguments. What’s not reasonable is that Diana Taurasi would not be in the conversation.

OlympicTalk: It seemed like four years ago there was a question if a young point guard could supplant Sue Bird before Rio. She’s still the No. 1 point guard on this team at 37. Do you see anybody challenging her before Tokyo?

Lawson: If she’s healthy, I expect to see her in Tokyo with that wealth of experience she brings. With the U.S. enjoying as much depth as they do at these competitions, she’s not needed to play 40 minutes a night. I think [a young point guard] is still a question mark for the roster. I don’t think anybody’s solidified themselves as a point guard behind Sue quite yet. It’s still kind of murky, but there’s so much growth that happens year over year in the WNBA.

OlympicTalk: Is guard depth the biggest question for this team?

Lawson: Diana Taurasi played backup point guard in the medal rounds. Obviously she’s perfectly capable of filling that role. It’s something they can work around with all the talent that they have. The biggest question is you want to be sure and hope that Bird and Taurasi are healthy for Tokyo. Not that I’m questioning them, because they have great attention to detail, discipline and focus in taking care of their bodies, but you get into your late 30s and your health is a key all the time.

OlympicTalk: Who’s the silver-medal favorite right now?

Lawson: It’s pretty even. The group of favorites might depend on which European teams qualify [at global 2020 tournaments]. Australia, obviously, with Elizabeth Cambage, the team the U.S. played in the FIBA gold-medal game, that’s going to be a team to watch. France, which lost in the quarterfinals to Belgium, is a really good team. Belgium is up and coming. Spain has medaled in three straight global competitions.

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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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