Naomi Osaka wins in front of Kobe, Colin Kaepernick; Coco Gauff next

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NEW YORK — For Naomi Osaka, having Kobe Bryant and Colin Kaepernick in her U.S. Open player box put the last year into perspective. Her next opponent, 15-year-old American Coco Gauff, causes Osaka to be introspective, too.

“You know, like, last year compared to this year there is no way, like, Kobe would sit in my box,” Osaka said after sweeping Poland’s Magda Linette 6-2, 6-4 in the second round Thursday. “Yeah, Kaepernick, too. It’s just crazy who you run into in life.”

Osaka, a 21-year-old who represents Japan, came into last year’s U.S. Open having never made a major quarterfinal. She left with the title after beating Serena Williams in a final that proved controversial for Williams but clutch for Osaka. She then won the Australian Open and became the first Asian player to be ranked No. 1.

Spring and summer struggles followed, but she still has the No. 1 next to her name at this event. And now some very famous friends.

“I know Kobe,” she said of Bryant, who has served a mentor role. “This is actually the first time I have ever met Colin, and it wasn’t even through me. … It’s really cool, but honestly, I just wanted to finish as fast as possible because I didn’t want them to stay in the sun too long.”

U.S. OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

Something else happened to Osaka after Thursday’s match that might have seemed unfathomable in the first week last year: a girl cried after getting a hug from her.

“I’d rather people don’t cry,” Osaka said. “It kind of makes me emotional, too. Yeah, I mean, it’s really crazy for me. I know, like, everyone said that the past year has been, like, insane. I think it’s moments like that that sort of make me realize it.”

Gauff, who made a magnetic run to the Wimbledon fourth round, was pushed to three sets in each of her first two matches this week. That included winning her U.S. Open night session debut over Hungarian qualifier Timea Babos 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 on Thursday.

She and Osaka play each other for the first time in Saturday’s third round. But they are already familiar, having practiced together when Osaka was a teen. Their dads are friends, too.

“I don’t have any thoughts on it right now because I have to play doubles tomorrow,” Gauff said, noting her first-round doubles match with 17-year-old Caty McNally, with whom she won the 2018 U.S. Open junior doubles title. “I don’t even know what today is.”

Osaka saw a bit of herself in Gauff when she came across the American keeping to herself in the locker room.

“Off the court she seems like me,” Osaka said. “Well, she seems a little bit more, like, she knows what she’s doing.

“I would love for her to come out of her shell a little bit. I just realize that’s probably what people say about me, too.”

At Wimbledon, Gauff became the youngest woman to reach the second week since Jennifer Capriati in 1991. At the U.S. Open, she is the youngest woman to reach the third round since Anna Kournikova in 1996.

Also Thursday, the first women’s top-10 seeds bowed out: No. 4 Simona Halep, No. 6 Petra Kvitova and No. 9 Aryna Sabalenka.

Halep, the Wimbledon champion, staved off match points, then squandered one before American Taylor Townsend ousted her 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4). Townsend, a former junior No. 1, made the third round of a Slam for the second time overall and the first time since the 2014 French Open. She had to qualify into the U.S. Open and notched her first win over a top-10 player in 11 career tries.

Rafael Nadal joined Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the third round after Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis withdrew before their match with a shoulder injury.

MORE: Serena Williams has terse reply to question about chair umpire

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Kelly Slater is trying to qualify for the Olympics at age 51

Kelly Slater
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On Dec. 19, 2019, Kelly Slater missed qualifying for surfing’s Olympic debut in Tokyo by one spot. It came down to the 11th and final event of the season-long World Surf League Championship Tour in a tight battle with his Hawaiian neighbor John John Florence.

At age 47, it appeared that surfing’s Olympic inclusion came just a bit too late for the greatest surfer in history to take part.

Slater continued to enter the sport’s other premier contests.

He opened the 2021 season with a third-place finish at surfing’s crown jewel, the Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu. But Slater then missed half the season, citing injuries to both ankles and his right hip. It was a reminder that every athlete succumbs to age — even if few have successfully fended it off longer than Slater.

Yet there Slater was last Feb. 5, being carried out of the water, raising his arms in triumph after winning his eighth Pipeline Masters title, six days shy of his 50th birthday and 30 years after his first victory. It was his first title on tour in nearly six years.

That win — which Slater called the best of his record 56 on the Championship Tour — also meant something more. Maybe, just maybe, he has enough left in the tank to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Slater made just one more quarterfinal in his remaining seven events last season. Still, he finished the year ranked 15th in the world and, more importantly for Olympic prospects, third among Americans.

Everybody starts from zero points again as this season opened Wednesday with the first rounds of the Pipeline Masters. The top two Americans per gender in the season-ending standings in September are likely to qualify for the Paris Games. The U.S. could get a third men’s Olympic spot if it wins next year’s World Surfing Games team competition (Brazil may be favored). It’s unclear what will determine which surfer fills that potential spot.

If he could only have one, Slater would take a 2024 Olympic spot over another win at Pipeline.

He is trying to become the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing, shooting or art competitions(!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova (who was 47 in 2004), according to Olympedia.org.

“This will be my one chance [at the Olympics],” Slater said Saturday while promoting the upcoming season of “Make or Break” that premieres Feb. 17 on Apple TV+. “The next [Olympics] I’ll be 55 years old. I’m not going to be on tour by then. I did say that at 40, though, when I was talking about being 50.”

Slater, speaking on Wednesday’s opening day Pipeline broadcast, said he messaged Tom Brady after the NFL star announced his retirement (for a second time) earlier in the day.

“I don’t think there would be a player in the league right now that wouldn’t say that Brady can still win a Super Bowl right now, so it’s a hard carrot to dangle in front of yourself and not go for it,” Slater said. “I can relate to that after so long, but I love to surf, and this is the outlet for it, still. I feel that candle kind of burning out for me. That’s been for a while, but I think I’m just going to surf until it’s totally done, and I don’t really care at all about surfing a heat and want to be somewhere else.”

Slater is pumped for the 2024 Olympic venue: Teahupo’o,  a daunting reef break nicknamed “The End of the Road.” It is in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris. It will break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host city.

Slater won there five times on the Championship Tour, the last in 2016.

“It’s one of the truly great challenging waves in the world,” he said. “If I can get on that team, I feel like I have a good shot at potentially winning a medal or gold medal. If that were the case, I will drop the mic and quit right then, but, you know, I got a lot of work to do between now and then.”

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Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone appears in ‘This is SportsCenter’ commercial

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Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone appears in an ESPN “This is SportsCenter” commercial that was published Friday and debuts on the network on Saturday night, after she races for the first time this year at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix on NBC.

In the commercial, ESPN (and former NBC Sports) anchor Hannah Storm asks McLaughlin-Levrone if she has a minute to catch up.

McLaughlin-Levrone replies by saying she has 51.46 seconds right after lunch, 51.41 seconds later in the afternoon or 50.68 seconds right now. The numbers represent the last three times that McLaughlin-Levrone clocked when breaking the 400m hurdles world record.

McLaughlin-Levrone is scheduled to race the 60m at the New Balance meet in Boston, which airs on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock from 4-6 p.m. ET on Saturday.

The commercial first airs during the North Carolina-Duke men’s basketball game that starts at 6:30 on ESPN.

In the last two years, McLaughlin-Levrone lowered the 400m hurdles world record four times, winning the Tokyo Olympics and last July’s world championships in Eugene, Oregon. She brought the record down from countrywoman Dalilah Muhammad‘s 52.16 from 2019 to 50.68 at July’s worlds.

The 23-year-old said after last season that she wants to expand by adding the flat 400m to the 400m hurdles, but she has not yet publicly committed to racing it at the next major outdoor meet, the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Eugene in July.

For the first time, McLaughlin-Levrone has a bye into the 400m hurdles at the world championships in August, meaning she does not have to race it at USATF Outdoors. That could make the flat 400m more appealing.

Past “This is SportsCenter” spots included Olympians Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Kerri Strug,

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