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Serena Williams into Wimbledon semifinals as she chases record

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WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Slowed by a balky ankle, trailing by a service break in the third set of her Wimbledon quarterfinal, Serena Williams appeared to be in trouble Tuesday against an opponent playing the tournament of her life.

Williams was down, yes. But out? No way. And now she is two victories from that 24th Grand Slam title that’s been barely eluding her.

Lifting her play a much-needed notch down the stretch to grab the last three games, capping the comeback with her 19th ace — at 121 mph, no less — Williams reached the semifinals at the All England Club by gutting out a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win over 55th-ranked Alison Riske.

“I had to just button up and play hard,” said Williams, who owns seven Wimbledon titles. “She was playing her heart out.”

That she was. Riske, a 29-year-old from Pittsburgh, was appearing in her first major quarterfinal. For Williams, this was No. 51.

That might have made all the difference. It’s Williams who possesses boundless muscle memory in these situations, who knows what it takes to come through in the tightest contests on the biggest stages.

“I definitely thought maybe I had a peek here and there at a couple openings, but Serena really upped her level, as only a champion would,” Riske said.

“It was really, actually, very interesting for me to be on the opposite end, because I felt her up her game and her intensity,” Riske said with a smile. “Yeah, I hope she takes the title now.”

Next for the 37-year-old Williams will be a match against 54th-ranked Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic, who reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at age 33 with a 7-6 (5), 6-1 victory over No. 19 Johanna Konta of Britain. The other semifinal Thursday will be No. 7 Simona Halep of Romania against No. 8 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.

After edging Riske in singles, Williams cooled down by riding a stationary bike while holding her nearly 2-year-old daughter, Olympia, in one arm. Then Williams went out and joined Andy Murray to win their second-round match in mixed doubles 7-5, 6-3 against Fabrice Martin and Raquel Atawo.

Halep, a former No. 1 who won the 2018 French Open, followed up her elimination of 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff by defeating Zhang Shuai of China 7-6 (4), 6-1 to get to her second semifinal at Wimbledon. Svitolina will make her debut in that round at any major tournament thanks to beating Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic 7-5, 6-4.

WIMBLEDON: Scores | Men’s Draw | Women’s Draw

These sorts of stakes, and this sort of setting, are unfamiliar for Riske, who mistakenly headed to her changeover chair thinking the match’s fifth game was over when the score was just 40-15.

Spectators chortled; she grinned and walked back to the baseline.

Even if Williams was hardly perfect, she got by, aided by her greatest-in-the-game serve and Riske’s miscues. Most glaringly, Riske double-faulted five times in the final set, at least somewhat a result of trying to do too much against William’s superb returns.

“It’s no secret that Serena has an amazing serve. But Serena has an equally-as-amazing return,” Riske said. “I’ve never played anyone that has a return like Serena. That put a lot of pressure on my serve.”

Still, Riske played tremendously well for most of the afternoon, just as she did while going 14-1 on grass in 2019 until Tuesday.

She won two of Williams’ first four service games and finished 5 for 5 on break points. Her deep and flat groundstrokes off both sides jarred Williams repeatedly. Until, that is, Riske wilted late — which was understandable, given that she became the first woman in Wimbledon history to play three-setters in five consecutive matches to open the tournament, according to the WTA.

Williams rolled her right ankle and her movement was hardly ideal. Late in the second set, she was visited by a trainer, who applied extra tape to the ankle. That was during a stretch when Riske, talking to herself between points, claimed four games in a row to take the second set and lead the third by a break at 1-0.

“I thought,” Riske said, “I was very close.”

Not close enough. Williams was not going to go quietly. She held at love to lead 4-3, and then came the key game. Riske saved a trio of break points and was a point from 4-all after claiming a point when Williams slipped along the well-worn baseline.

First Williams got back to deuce by using a drop shot to set up a volley winner. Then she earned yet another break point on a thrilling 10-stroke exchange, using a drop shot to bring Riske forward and delivering a volley winner. Williams lifted both arms and jutted her jaw. In the stands, her husband leaped from his seat, pointed his index fingers at her and screamed.

On the next point, Riske double-faulted, handing over the last break Williams needed.

After breaking Steffi Graf’s record for most Grand Slam trophies in the professional era by winning her 23rd at the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant, Williams took time off. Since returning to the tour last season, she came close to equaling Margaret Court’s Slam count of 24 — which was accumulated in part against amateurs — but lost in the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Williams dealt with injuries and illness this year, playing just 12 matches until last week.

“This is the first time since (January) that I actually felt, like, good,” she said at her news conference, while Olympia was held by Williams’ agent at the back of the room. “It’s been a really, really long year for me already, and hard year.”

That’s true. Also true: She’s Serena Williams.

And so here she is, back in Wimbledon’s semifinals for the 12th time.

“She’s something,” Riske said, “our sport has never seen before.”

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Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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TIMELINE: Russia’s recent history of sports doping