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Novak Djokovic outlasts Roger Federer in epic Wimbledon final

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WIMBLEDON, England — For nearly five tight, tense and terrific hours, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer traded the lead, playing on and on and on until an unprecedented fifth-set tiebreaker was required to settle their memorable Wimbledon final.

In the end, it was Djokovic who emerged victorious, coming back to edge Federer 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) and become the first man in 71 years to take home the trophy from the All England Club after needing to erase championship points.

“Unfortunately in these kinds of matches, one of the players has to lose,” Djokovic said. “It’s quite unreal.”

After facing two match points at 8-7 in the last set, he wound up claiming his fifth Wimbledon title and second in a row.

This triumph also earned Djokovic his 16th Grand Slam trophy overall, moving him closer to the only men ahead of him in tennis history: Federer owns 20, Rafael Nadal has 18.

“I just feel like it’s such an incredible opportunity missed,” said Federer, who actually accumulated 14 more total points, 218-204. “I can’t believe it.”

He has ruled grass courts since the early 2000s; he has won Wimbledon eight times dating to 2003, and this was his record 12th appearance in the title match. But Djokovic is now 3-0 against Federer in finals at the place and 4-0 against him in five-setters anywhere.

This one was unlike any other, though.

That’s because, while it was reminiscent of Federer’s 16-14 fifth-set victory over Andy Roddick in the 2009 Wimbledon final, that score is no longer possible: The All England Club altered its rule this year to do away with never-ending matches and institute a tiebreaker at 12-all in a deciding set.

At one point during the final set Sunday, Djokovic asked chair umpire Damian Steiner whether the change called for the tiebreaker at 10-10. Later, when Djokovic held for an 11-10 lead, it was Steiner who got confused, beginning to call out the score as 11-9, before catching himself.

“I respect whatever the rule is,” Federer said when asked what he thinks of the altered setup. “So really, it is what it is, you know?”

Federer and Djokovic pushed each other to the limit in what became as much a test of focus and stamina as it was about skill. It is the longest final in the history of a tournament that dates to the 1870s, eclipsing by nine minutes Nadal’s five-set win over Federer in 2008.

Like that one, this is destined to be discussed for years.

“I’ll try to forget,” joked Federer, who is less than a month shy of his 38th birthday and would have been the oldest man to win a Grand Slam title in the professional era.

“It was a great match. It was long. It had everything. I had my chances. So did he. I thought we played some great tennis. In a way, I’m very happy with my performance, as well,” Federer said during the trophy ceremony. “But Novak, it’s great. Congratulations, man. That was crazy. Well done.”

First, it was Federer who kept falling behind, then coming back. He twice trailed by a set even though he came quite close to winning the match in three: Federer was two points from grabbing the opening set on seven occasions but couldn’t do it; he was one point from seizing the third, but again came up short.

Then, Federer was down a break early in the crucible of the fifth. And then, after seemingly gaining the upper hand, standing a single point from winning while serving for the victory at 8-7, 40-15, he faltered.

He sent a forehand wide on the first championship point, and Djokovic produced a cross-court forehand winner on the next. Soon enough, the 32-year-old Djokovic had broken back and on they would play for another 45 minutes.

“Definitely tough to have those chances,” Federer said.

Djokovic has done this to him before.

In the semifinals of the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Opens, Djokovic erased two match points each time before coming back to win.

Looking at the bigger picture, there’s also this takeaway from Sunday: Nadal’s status as Federer’s principal nemesis has been well-documented and much-examined over the years — which is a small part of why Friday’s semifinal victory for Federer was fraught with meaning. But it’s now high time to discuss Djokovic’s edge over Federer.

Djokovic has won their past five meetings and holds a 26-22 advantage overall head-to-head, including 10-6 at Grand Slam tournaments and 3-1 at Wimbledon.

By the reverberating sound of things around the old arena Sunday, a vast majority of the spectators were pulling for the popular Federer. Made it seem as though he might be British, not Swiss.

While one person cried out, “We love you both!” — a fitting sentiment, given the high quality and unceasing shifts in momentum — the “Come on, Roger!” count far outnumbered the shouts for his Serbian foe.

Yes, they roared for Federer’s ace on the very first point and when he sent the final to a fifth set. They even applauded when he kicked a ball to a ball boy or when he brought his racket around his back to make meaningless contact after Djokovic served a let.

And then there were the “Awwwws.” So many “Awwwws” — pained sighs of despair accompanying a missed backhand here, a double-fault there, by their guy.

It wasn’t until the fourth set that Federer faced so much as one break point, no small accomplishment against Djokovic, considered by many to be the greatest returner of his, or perhaps any, generation. Still, even though Federer did get broken in that set, he won it to send this match to a fifth.

What already was fun to watch became completely riveting.

That’s not to say the tennis was perfect, because both men showed signs of fatigue and perhaps nerves. Federer’s mediocre approach shot provided Djokovic an opening for a backhand pass that earned a break and a 4-2 lead.

Djokovic’s double-fault in the next game helped Federer break back, and the ensuing changeover was filled with a fugue of fans’ voices chanting the first names of both.

As the newfangled tiebreaker carried the last set alone past the two-hour mark, it was Djokovic who was better. When Federer shanked a forehand off his racket frame, it was over, allowing Djokovic to renew his personal tradition of plucking some blades of Centre Court grass and chewing on them.

“Constant pressure,” Djokovic said. “I had to fight and find my game to stay in the match.”

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Coco Gauff stuns Naomi Osaka at Australian Open; Serena upset, Federer escapes

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Coco Gauff plays nothing like what her age — still just 15 — or her ranking — 67th and rapidly rising — would suggest.

Everyone keeps finding out that no matter an opponent’s experience or accolades, no matter the stakes or the stage, Gauff plays with determination and delivers the goods.

Gauff became the youngest player in the professional era to eliminate the reigning women’s champion at the Australian Open, beating former No. 1 Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-4 in the third round at Melbourne Park on Friday.

After her match, during her on-court interview, Gauff turned into a rather typical teen, joking about wanting to take “a selfie for Instagram” with Rod Laver, the 11-time major champion after whom the stadium is named.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

“Honestly, like, what is my life? Like, oh, my gosh!” Gauff told the crowd. “Two years ago, I lost first round in juniors and now I’m here. This is crazy.”

She is also the youngest player to beat a top-five opponent in a women’s tour-level match since Jennifer Capriati did it at 15 in 1991.

“You don’t want to lose to a 15-year-old, you know?” Osaka said.

It was the second significant result of Day 5 in Melbourne: In the same quarter of the bracket, 23-time major champion Serena Williams lost to 27th-seeded Wang Qiang 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 earlier. On the men’s side, the 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer won the last six points of a fifth-set super tiebreak to beat Australian John Millman 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (8).

Gauff pulled this off with some big serving, consistent groundstrokes and by letting Osaka largely be her own undoing.

Osaka made 30 unforced errors, Gauff merely 17. This was a rematch from the third round at the U.S. Open last September; Osaka won that one in straight sets, then consoled a crying Gauff afterward and encouraged her to speak to the fans.

“Her serve is way better,” Osaka said. “I feel like I wasn’t really swinging freely, and she was.”

So, Naomi, could you have done something differently?

“Put the ball in the court,” came the reply.

Gauff’s game is growing so quickly.

Osaka, for her part, made her own rapid ascent to the top of tennis, claiming the trophies at the U.S. Open in 2018 and Australian Open in 2019 to rise to No. 1 in the WTA rankings. She is only 22 herself.

Seems old by comparison, of course.

There were the occasional signs that Gauff is not a fully formed player — or person — just yet. For example, leading by a set and a break, serving at 1-0, 40-15, Gauff double-faulted twice in one game to get broken for the first time. It was a rare lapse, though — and one to be expected at this stage of her life and career.

One reminder of just how young Gauff is: Most of the entrants in this year’s junior Australian Open are older than she is.

Another: She is taking online classes and said she’s been given permission to turn in homework late, “considering the circumstances.”

Yet another: She doesn’t have an official driver’s license quite yet, stuck practicing behind the wheel with a learner’s permit.

Her play is far beyond her years. Her composure, on and off the court, is remarkable.

That all helped Gauff become the first American in 30 years to reach at least the third round in each of her first three major appearances.

Her next opponent will be either No. 14 seed Sofia Kenin, who swept Chinese Zhang Shuai.

So late, in fact, that Gauff said she would have to pass on scouting their match because she would “probably be asleep.”

MORE: Top U.S. tennis player unlikely to play Olympics

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Athletes warily embrace progress as USA Gymnastics evolves

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The dread was familiar. The fear too. They gripped MyKayla Skinner shortly after she decided to return to elite gymnastics last summer.

Skinner wasn’t worried about recapturing the skills that made her an alternate on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. A standout college career at Utah not only rekindled her love of the sport but served as a form of self care, the hyper intense pressure of performing for former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi replaced by the sense of joyousness she felt competing for the Utes.

That feeling of safety vanished as Skinner prepared for her first national team camp since deciding she would make a run at the 2020 Olympics.

She’d watched her friends and former teammates come forward to admit in open court they’d been abused by former national team doctor Larry Nassar, now serving what amounts to a life sentence for sexually assaulting gymnasts with his hands and possessing child pornography.

She kept an eye on USA Gymnastics as it stepped on one land mine after another in the aftermath as the lawsuits piled up and its role as the sport’s national governing body became tenuous at best. And while the organization believes it has taken positive steps to emerge from the rubble, Skinner wondered what was real and what wasn’t. She texted friend and reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles in hopes of finding clarity, worried about a bait and switch.

“I was like, ’I’m so scared to come to camp. Like, how is it with all the changes, new coaches and everything?″ Skinner said.

Biles, a Nassar survivor who has embraced her role as the the sport’s most influential voice since rocketing to stardom following her golden run at the 2016 Games, assured Skinner the vibe had shifted.

Sitting in a small conference room this week while preparing for the first national team camp of 2020, the Olympics just seven months away, the 23-year-old recently married Skinner admitted she’s still adjusting to the “new” USA Gymnastics.

“It’s just so weird coming into the gym and not feeling like, you know, ‘I’m going to die,’” she said. “Before it was like, ‘I’ve got to hit that routine or I’m going to get yelled at.’ So it’s just been really nice to kind of relax a little bit and be able to really focus on gymnastics and get to enjoy it more.”

There is a sense of lightness during practices that was hard to come by during Karolyi’s hugely successful but strident tenure.

The athletes no longer end each workout by lining up in order of height and offering a robotic, monotone “thank you” to the staff.

Upbeat music plays as they stretch. They talk openly and animatedly while waiting for their turn at each event, a decided departure from the near silence that was commonplace — and perhaps symbolic — of Karolyi’s authoritarian leadership style.

It’s one of the reasons Biles is “optimistic” about USA Gymnastics’ future. When asked why, her words sounded conciliatory even as her tone suggested she has no plans to stop calling out the powers that be when the moment requires.

“I feel like they’re working towards the right direction,” Biles said. “But there are still a lot of unanswered questions that a lot of us as survivors and as the community around us need. But for the most part, in the gym and what we do as a team, that’s going good.”

That wasn’t always the case under Karolyi. At turns brilliant and brutal, Karolyi’s near total control over the women’s elite program turned it into a powerhouse even as it left its athletes at times feeling powerless, the most decorated gymnast in the history of the sport included.

“With Martha you really feared (her) because she held your whole career in her hand,” Biles said. “And now I feel like you’re a little bit more forgiven because it’s such a hard sport and mistakes will be made but it’s how you rise from them and to learn to not do it again.”

A lesson USA Gymnastics itself is attempting to learn itself as it tries to recover from the largest sexual abuse scandal in sports history. The changes it has instituted since the summer of 2017 are both obvious and subtle.

It moved training centers twice, from the Karolyi Ranch in Texas — a decision reached only after Biles expressed outrage about possibly returning to a place she associated with Nassar’s behavior — to Evo Athletics in Bradenton, Florida, to The Gymnastics Company in suburban Indianapolis.

The rustic cabins at the remote ranch tucked into the Sam Houston National Forest have been replaced by hotel rooms near an interstate, a Starbucks and fast food restaurants. Coaches and athletes are prohibited from being alone together during trips to and from national team camps, forcing some to ride share or carpool upon arrival.

Perhaps most telling, the training tables inside The Gymnastics Company are situated right in the middle of the massive steel-structure, not tucked away in a corner.

“We didn’t want to create a back room,” high performance team coordinator Tom Forster said.

Those days are over.

During practice on Monday evening, Annie Heffernan, vice president of the women’s program, sat at a table with Kim Kranz, the organization’s first-ever vice president of athlete health and wellness.

President Li Li Leung, a former collegiate gymnast who came over from the NBA last spring, quietly walked among them, making small talk as she went. Forster — as approachable as Karolyi was aloof — gave the coaches a brief talk and then offered more smiles in 15 minutes than Karolyi did in a given year.

While gymnasts are still rewarded during camps for their performance, national team staff members now have the ability to honor an athlete for things that have nothing to do with chasing perfection.

“It could be an attitude, it could be sportsmanship,” Forster said. “It could be that they came back after that fall and did great. It’s not based on ‘this one’s the best, we have to acknowledge her.’”

The organization has stressed the need for open communication. The members of the 2019 World Championship team were asked to fill out a survey after the competition and share their thoughts on what worked and what didn’t. The same is done after team camps.

“They can complain about anything and anyone that they want to,” Forster said. “They can make it anonymous if they choose or they can say, ‘Hey I want feedback, or ’This is me, and I want to hear from you.’ They can do whatever they wish.”

Measuring any progress is tricky. The organization that long served as the gold standard for the U.S. Olympic movement has lost the benefit of the doubt. Even as it tries to prove how it has evolved over the last three years, the reality is things remain complicated.

Two coaches currently under investigation by U.S. SafeSport attended the camp with their athletes this week. Mediators are still trying to work through the bankruptcy petition USA Gymnastics filed in 2018 as a last-ditch effort to avoid decertification by the USOPC. Nassar survivors continue to call for the organization’s dissolution. Money is tight as sponsors wait for the legal process to play out. When the organization started placing equipment inside The Gymnastics Company, it had staffers do most of the lifting rather than hire professional movers.

All of which leaves the young women vying for an Olympic spot in an awkward position.

Most of the gymnasts in the senior elite program have no connection to Karolyi or Nassar, who was dismissed in the summer of 2015. Yet they find themselves serving as a beta test of sorts on whether the culture shift the organization is trying to bring about is actually happening.

Each of the 15 gymnasts interviewed by The Associated Press this week said they feel they have the freedom to express themselves without fear of retribution. Each believe their mental and physical health and safety is considered important. All of them, however, talked with a coach or a member of the USA Gymnastics staff within earshot.

It’s a lot for group of teenagers and 20-somethings to carry around. Yet it doesn’t appear overwhelming. When Grace McCallum inadvertently sailed off the uneven bars during training on Tuesday morning, her group broke out into laughter — McCallum included — as the three-time world championship medalist picked herself up off the mat.

Yet it was just one moment during one practice that happened to be conducted in front of reporters, photographers and video crews. Whether any of this new approach actually sticks will depend on what happens when the cameras aren’t around.

Much like the sport itself, the process will take dedication, discipline and the ability to address mistakes honestly. Two-time Olympic medalist Laurie Hernandez, however, is hopeful it can be done. She went nearly 3 1/2 years between national team camps after winning gold and silver in Rio. The difference between then and now is jarring. In the best way.

“Now we can truly enjoy each other’s company while just relaxing and enjoying our gymnastics,” Hernandez said. “That says a lot about the environment that’s being created for us. … it’s going to take a second. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not like we’re going to forget what happened before. But it’s getting there.”

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