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Serena Williams eyes Slam record in U.S. Open final; this time is different

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NEW YORK — Serena Williams takes the court for a Grand Slam singles final on Saturday, looking to tie the record of 24 titles and her first as a mom. She has done this three times before in the last 14 months. She struck out each time.

“It’s totally different situation now, because now she can move,” said her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, one day before Williams plays Canadian 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu in the U.S. Open final at 4 p.m. ET. “She was in the three finals because she’s the best competitor of all times, not because she was ready.”

Mouratoglou said Williams’ physical fitness is at an apex since she had daughter Olympia on Sept. 1, 2017, which was followed by pulmonary embolism complications that confined her to bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

She returned to make finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2018, after withdrawing from the French Open with a pectoral muscle injury. She lost those championship matches to Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka.

The Osaka defeat in the U.S. Open final was marred by Williams’ controversy with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, but it must be said that at the time Osaka was already up one set and a break.

“I”m definitely more ready than last year,” Williams said after destroying quarterfinal foe Wang Qiang 6-1, 6-0 in 44 minutes on Tuesday, “although I thought I was playing really well last year.”

If it wasn’t for her health, Williams might already have tied Margaret Court‘s record 24 Slams this year.

She was en route to the Australian Open semifinals in January before rolling her ankle on the first of her four quarterfinal match points and then losing six straight games to exit. She’s said she shouldn’t have played the French Open after withdrawing from a tune-up event with a knee injury.

She was bounced in the fourth round, which led many to question if, at 37, her chances were dwindling. Williams bounced back at Wimbledon, reaching the final, but ran into Simona Halep playing the match of her life. Mouratoglou also said that Williams’ knee injury hampered her until 10 days before that major.

“Her opportunities are running out,” analyst Chris Evert said before the U.S. Open. “I think this and maybe the Australian Open could be the last two.”

Williams proved Mouratoglou prophetic this week with ruthless efficiency. It’s the first time she hasn’t dropped a set in the three matches preceding a Grand Slam final since she won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant.

But Mouratoglou also predicted before the event that the 15th seed Andreescu would make the final. Andreescu, who was born after Williams won her first Slam at the 1999 U.S. Open, hasn’t lost a completed match in six months. But that statistic is misleading, because she has dealt with more injury problems than Williams this spring and summer.

After winning Indian Wells, she missed the French Open and Wimbledon with a shoulder injury. Andreescu played Williams for the first time at their last pre-U.S. Open tournament last month. But Williams withdrew with back spasms after four games.

That led to a moment that went viral on tennis Twitter. Andreescu walked from her chair to comfort the crying legend.

“I’ve watched you you’re whole career,” Andreescu told her in what had to be one of their first conversations, “and you’re a f—ing beast.”

And that’s what Andreescu must face in her first major final. A year ago, a 208th-ranked Andreescu lost in the first round of U.S. Open qualifying. Should she conquer the beast, it would be the fewest number of Grand Slam main draw appearances (four) before winning a title since Maria Sharapova at 2004 Wimbledon. (Sharapova was also the last teenager to win a Slam)

Saturday’s final also represents the largest age gap in Grand Slam history. In the other six finals with the largest gaps, the younger player won. The younger finalist, if not overcome by the occasion, can play fearless.

Can Andreescu tame the beast? Or will Williams join three other moms to win Slams in the last 50 years — Kim Clijsters, Evonne Goolagong and Court.

Williams has done little talking about the enormity of another final, but provided a glimpse into her mind after Tuesday’s quarterfinals. As she waved to an adoring Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd, she appeared to mouth the words, “I’m coming for it.”

“Serena had to experience a bit of pressure in her life,” Mouratoglou said. “And you can’t think that she’s not good dealing with pressure.”

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Too early to say whether virus threatens Olympics, WHO says

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GENEVA (AP) — Despite a virus outbreak spreading from China, a top World Health Organization official said Tuesday it’s much too soon to say whether the Tokyo Olympics are at risk of being cancelled or moved.

Tokyo organizers and the International Olympic Committee have repeatedly said they have no contingency plans for the July 24-Aug. 9 Summer Games since the WHO declared a global health emergency last month.

The U.N. agency’s emergencies program director, Michael Ryan, said Tuesday the sporting event was “way too far” away to consider giving advice that would affect Tokyo’s hosting of the Olympics.

“We are not there to make a decision for that,” Ryan told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a news conference at WHO headquarters.

Geneva-based WHO has been in regular contact with the IOC in nearby Lausanne since the virus known as COVID-19 emerged in December.

“We don’t give them judgments,” Ryan said. “We assist them with their risk assessment. We will be working closely with them in the coming weeks and months.”

The death toll in mainland China due to the virus rose to almost 1,900 on Tuesday, with more than 72,000 confirmed cases.

The outbreak has caused numerous sports events in China to be canceled, postponed, or moved, including qualifying events for the Tokyo Olympics.

Chinese athletes and teams have also been unable to travel for some competitions. China sent a team of more than 400 athletes to the Rio Olympics. It won 70 medals, including 26 gold, to place second in total medal standings.

Around 11,000 athletes and many more team coaches and officials from more than 200 national teams are expected in Japan for the Olympics.

Japan has experienced the most significant outbreak of the virus outside of China, on the cruise ship Diamond Princess docked in quarantine at Yokohama in Tokyo Bay.

During a 14-day isolation that ends Wednesday, 542 cases have been identified among more than 3,700 passengers and crew.

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For Mike Eruzione, Al Michaels, it’s no miracle that 1980 Olympics endure

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Mike Eruzione has been reminded on a daily basis about the Miracle on Ice for nearly four decades. While playing celebrity golf tournaments. At speaking engagements. Or that time he auctioned his jersey and stick from the Soviet game to a 9-year-old boy named Seven.

Eruzione, now 65, likes to open conversations with one anecdote about meeting strangers, which he repeated in a call with reporters last week.

“The stories I hear, 40 years later, it’s depending on their age — I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated, I remember where I was on 9/11. I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up. And I remember where I was when we won,” Eruzione said. “And I always say, ‘We? I didn’t know you were on the team.’

“But people felt a part of it. … It’s nice to know that people remember and share some great stories about what we did so long ago.”

The captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team owns a last name that means “eruption” in Italian. Eruzione scored the decisive goal in the U.S.’ 4-3 win over the Soviet Union en route to a shock gold medal during the Cold War in Lake Placid, N.Y.

NBCSN airs a 30-minute special marking the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice on Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET. It will feature a conversation between Olympic primetime host Mike Tirico and Al Michaels, the play-by-play voice of the game dubbed by Sports Illustrated the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

Eruzione has grandchildren now. Three of them skate at the Mike Eruzione Center in his hometown of Winthrop, Mass.

“They don’t even know who Mike Eruzione is,” Eruzione said of the 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds, “but they know about the Miracle.”

All credit to the U.S. Olympic team of 20 players between ages 19 and 25, back when the NHL did not participate in the Olympics. The Soviets were essentially a team of professionals. The nation won the previous four Olympics and throttled the U.S. 10-3 in a pre-Olympic exhibition at Madison Square Garden.

Enter Michaels, calling hockey at the Lake Placid Winter Games alongside Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden. Michaels, then 35, said he was assigned the sport because he had the most hockey experience on the ABC Olympic talent roster — one game. He called the 1972 Olympic hockey final by himself.

Feb. 22, 1980: As the U.S. led the Soviet Union 4-3 and the final seconds ticked down, one word came to mind: miraculous.

“It got morphed into a question and quick answer, and away we went,” Michaels said.

Eruzione said he didn’t learn of Michaels’ call — “Do you believe in Miracles? Yes!” — until two weeks after the Olympics. He didn’t watch the game broadcast until years later.

“I never thought it was a miracle, but it was a catchy phrase and it sounded right,” Eruzione said, noting he preferred Michaels’ call in the final comeback win over Finland to clinch the gold: “This impossible dream comes true.”

Team members since gathered often — to light the 2002 Olympic cauldron in Salt Lake City, for fantasy camps in Lake Placid and for coach Herb Brooks‘ 2003 funeral. Eighteen of the 20 players are scheduled to reunite this weekend in Las Vegas.

Absent will be Mark Pavelich, who was jailed last year on assault charges and ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. And Bob Suter, who died in 2014 of a heart attack at age 57.

It was Suter’s death that motivated Eruzione and others to commemorate the 35th anniversary together in Lake Placid. It was believed to be the first time all living players were together in Lake Placid since the 1980 Winter Games.

Eruzione said that the 2004 film “Miracle” introduced the team to a new generation. Now at many of his speeches, the majority of Eruzione’s audience was born after 1980.

“I’ll say, how many people watched the movie ‘Miracle,’ and almost everybody raises their hand,” he said. “So I think what the movie did for us as a team was kind of rejuvenated our team as far as people knowing who we were and what we are and what we were about.”

NFL coaches set up “Miracle” viewings for their teams before games. Michael Phelps watched it for motivation at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Phelps told relay teammates, “This is our time,” before they beat rival Australia. An ode to Brooks’ pregame speech before the Soviet game.

Michaels, whose 13-year-old grandson won an October hockey tournament in Lake Placid, said he watched “Miracle” last week for the first time in about a decade. He helped do voiceovers in production more than 15 years ago, though the original Lake Placid audio was used for his signature call.

“The great thing is, in a way, when you watch it back or you watch highlights back, you almost become like in the third person, like somebody else is doing this and announcing this game,” Michaels said. “I exult the way I think most of the country did and do when they see highlights of it. So it’s kind of an out-of-body experience in a way, but it’s a beautiful thing.”

After Eruzione shared his tale of strangers’ memories, Michaels added one of his own.

“One of my favorite stories is Mike Eruzione calling me maybe eight to 10 years ago and saying, ‘The greatest thing about this is every time I come home and maybe I’m a little down, I need a little pick-me-up, I’ll put the tape in,'” Michaels said. “‘Every time I shoot, the puck goes in. It will forever.'”

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