Comeback Coco: Gauff rallies to win U.S. Open debut

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NEW YORK — Comeback Coco is back. Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old who authored a magnetic run to the Wimbledon fourth round, rallied to win her first U.S. Open main draw match on Tuesday.

Gauff beat a fellow former junior No. 1, 18-year-old Russian Anastasia Potapova, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 to reach the second round of the season’s final Grand Slam. This one felt different than her Wimbledon debut win over Venus Williams, or any of the other three matches at the All England Club.

“At Wimbledon, my first match, I mean, people were still rooting for me, but obviously there was, like, a lot of people rooting for Venus, where this match it was entirely for me,” said Gauff, the youngest singles player to win a U.S. Open match since countrywoman CiCi Bellis in 2014. “This is my first match where people actually had a chant for me.”

U.S. OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

Gauff next gets Hungarian qualifier Tímea Babos on Thursday (she had to be told that she gets a day off and doesn’t have to play Wednesday).

The women’s draw has seen few major upsets — 2017 U.S. Open champion and No. 11 seed Sloane Stephens was the highest-ranked first-round loser — while four men in the top 10 were upset Tuesday.

Gauff could play No. 1 Naomi Osaka in the third round Saturday. The two practiced together about two years ago, said Osaka, who advanced in three sets Tuesday to open her title defense.

“I have actually been trying to talk to her recently, because I feel she’s a little bit like me,” said the 21-year-old Osaka, who last year became the youngest U.S. Open champion since Maria Sharapova in 2006. “This is such a good experience for her. She obviously deserves to play here.”

Gauff looked lost in the first set Tuesday evening at Louis Armstrong Stadium, the second-biggest court on the grounds with a 14,000 capacity. She had three winners to 16 unforced errors, including four double faults.

“Obviously I was nervous going out on the court,” she said. “It’s such a big court. Then my home Slam, so I wanted to do well.”

But Gauff, who threw up her hands in the direction of her player box to urge them to support her, hit reset and came back as she did in the third round of Wimbledon last month. There, Gauff became the youngest woman to make a Grand Slam fourth round since Jennifer Capriati in 1991 and became a mainstream sensation.

“It’s mostly upside,” Gauff said of the fame. “The amount of people and kids especially that come up to me saying I inspire them is honestly, I guess, better than any match I could win, just to know that I inspire another kid maybe to pick up a racket or go through something they’re facing at school.”

In other action Tuesday, the likelihood that one of the men’s Big Three wins a 12th straight Grand Slam increased significantly despite none of them playing in the day session.

That’s because next-generation stars Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas each dropped four-set matches, bowing out in the first round of a second straight Slam.

Tsitsipas’ defeat was more memorable, for he ranted against chair umpire Damien Dumusois after being called for a coaching violation and being told to speed up during a clothing change. Andrey Rublev, the 43-ranked Russian, dumped the eighth-seeded Greek 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (7), 7-5.

“For some reason, you have something against me … because you’re French, probably,” Tsitsipas, who beat Roger Federer at the Australian Open en route to the semifinals, told the umpire. “And you’re all weirdos.”

Thiem went out more quietly, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 to 87th-ranked Italian Thomas Fabbiano. The Austrian had downplayed his readiness before the tournament due to a virus.

“I got very, very tired and exhausted after two sets,” he said. “I’m far away from 100 percent.”

In the spring, Thiem appeared the most likely man to break up the Federer-Novak DjokovicRafael Nadal triumvirate, winning Indian Wells (considered the fifth major) and reaching a second straight French Open final. He beat Federer, Djokovic and Nadal in the clay season.

Later Tuesday night, Nadal swept Australian John Millman 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. Only one other top-12 seed is left in Nadal’s half of the draw: No. 6 Alexander Zverev, who needed five sets to advance Tuesday.

Federer, Djokovic and the Williams sisters headline Wednesday’s second-round matches.

MORE: Serena Williams gives terse response when asked about 2018 chair umpire

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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