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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.”

MORE: Roger Federer undecided on Olympics

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Israel is first nation to qualify for 2020 Olympic baseball tournament

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Israel’s baseball team, which captivated at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, is headed to its first Olympics next summer.

Israel won a joint European-African tournament to become the first nation to qualify for baseball’s return to the Games after the sport was voted off the program after Beijing 2008.

It joins host nation Japan. Four more countries will qualify — two at the global Premier12 in November, another from the Americas and one more from a last-chance qualifier next year.

Israel, ranked 19th in the world, advanced via its best opportunity in Italy this week. It upset the highest-ranked European nations — the Netherlands (No. 8) and host Italy (No. 16) — and wrapped it up with an 11-1 win over South Africa on Sunday.

Its run came two years after Israel, then ranked 41st, beat South Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Cuba before bowing out of the World Baseball Classic. And one week after Israel finished fourth at the European Championship.

Israel’s roster at this week’s Olympic qualifier lacked many of the MLB veterans that it had at the World Baseball Classic. Israeli citizenship was not required at the WBC.

Its most recognizable player is Danny Valencia, an infielder who played parts of nine MLB seasons from 2010-18.

MLB players are unlikely to feature at the Tokyo Games, but minor leaguers are expected to be eligible as in the past.

The rest of the Olympic field is likely to be nations from North America (such as the U.S., Cuba, Mexico or Canada) or Asia (South Korea, Chinese Taipei) or Australia.

Baseball will not be on the 2024 Olympic program but could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

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MORE: USA Baseball taps longtime catcher to be Olympic qualifying manager

J’den Cox repeats as world wrestling champion; Kyle Snyder stunned

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If he wasn’t crowned already, it’s clear U.S. wrestling has a new king.

On a day when Rio Olympic champion Kyle Snyder was upset and London Olympic champ Jordan Burroughs rallied for another bronze medal, J’den Cox repeated as world champion in Kazakhstan.

Cox, the Rio Olympic 86kg bronze medalist, completed a perfect run through the 92kg division — not giving up a point in four matches — by dominating Iranian Alireza Karimi 4-0 in the final. He became the second U.S. man to win an Olympic or world title without surrendering a point in more than 30 years (joining Kyle Dake from last year).

“I don’t know why, but it feels like a ton better [than 2018],” said Cox, whose tattoos include one that reads in Latin, “If I cannot move heaven, I will raise hell.” “I made more sacrifices … I wanted to do it better.”

Earlier Saturday, Snyder was shocked by Azerbaijan’s Sharif Sharifov 5-2 in the 97kg semifinals, denying a third straight world final between Snyder and Russian Tank Abdulrashid Sadulayev. Sharifov, the 2012 Olympic 84kg champ, clinched his first world medal in eight years.

Snyder, who in Rio became the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion at age 20, failed to make an Olympic or world final for the first time in his career. He will wrestle for bronze on Sunday, while Sharifov meets Sadulayev for gold.

Burroughs earned his seventh straight world championships medal and second straight bronze. Burroughs, the 2012 Olympic 74kg champion, rebounded from losing to Russian Zaurbeck Sidakov on Friday with a 10-0 technical fall over Japanese Mao Okui.

Burroughs gave up a lead on Sidakov with 1.3 seconds left in the semifinals, a year after Sidakov overtook him as time expired in the quarterfinals.

“A lot of people in 2016 called me a quitter,” said Burroughs, who tearfully missed the medals in Rio, “and I think that after watching the amount of devastation and heartbreak that I’ve taken over the last two years and still being able to come back and take third place is a testament.”

Burroughs, 31, shares third with Adeline Gray on the U.S. list of career world wrestling championships medals, trailing only Bruce Baumgartner and Kristie Davis, who each earned nine.

Burroughs’ bronze ensured he gets a bye into the 74kg final of the Olympic trials in April. But this will be the first time he goes into an Olympic year as anything other than a reigning world champion.

“At this juncture of my career, I feel I’m running out of time,” said Burroughs, who next year will be older than any previous U.S. Olympic wrestling champion. “That can be really scary.”

Dake marched to Sunday’s final in defense of his 2018 World title at 79kg (a non-Olympic weight) by going 23-4 over three matches. Dake, who at Cornell became the only wrestler to win NCAA titles at four weight classes or without a redshirt, gets Azerbaijan’s Jabrayil Hasanov in the final, a rematch of the 2018 gold-medal match.

Next year, Dake must move up to 86kg, where Cox will likely reside, or down to 74kg, where Burroughs has won every U.S. Olympic or world trials dating to 2011. There’s also David Taylor to reckon with. Taylor won the 86kg world title last year but missed this season due to injury.

“We’ve got a guy at 79 kilos that’s going to win a world championship tomorrow,” Burroughs said, smiling, of Dake, “I’m hopefully going to be waiting for [Dake at Olympic trials], healthy and prepared.”

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