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U.S. athletes fend off early world championship challenges in Doha

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Reigning champions Justin Gatlin, Emma Coburn and Christian Taylor advanced with ease through the early rounds of their title defenses Friday on the first day of track and field’s world championships in Doha, Qatar.

Gatlin comfortably won his heat to advance in 10.06 seconds. The fastest time in the heats belonged to Christian Coleman, who tore through the track to finish in 9.98 seconds despite shutting things down in the last 10 meters. U.S. veteran Mike Rodgers also advanced.

PREVIEW: Coleman, Gatlin and Blake set for 100m showdown

Coburn also advanced with ease, cruising along with a three-runner lead pack in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and wasting little effort down the stretch. Courtney Frerichs, a stunning second to Coburn in 2017, qualified by finishing second in her heat to top-ranked Beatrice Chepkoech of Kenya.

Taylor didn’t hit the automatic qualifying mark in the triple jump but was secure enough in his first-round effort of 16.99 meters to pass on his final jump. Will Claye, who has dueled with friendly rival Taylor many times in recent years, struggled with his first two jumps and qualified with a third effort of 16.97m despite taking off well behind the board. Donald Scott matched Taylor at 16.99m to qualify, also pulling through with a clutch performance in the final round, but fourth American Omar Craddock barely missed out on a tiebreaker.

The most unusual qualification effort belonged to Olympic silver medalist and 2017 bronze medalist Paul Chelimo who showed off a devastating finishing kick in the final few steps of his heat in the men’s 5,000 meters — even with one shoe missing. Hassan Mead also advanced.

Rai Benjamin stayed on track for a likely showdown with Norway’s Karsten Warholm in the men’s 400m hurdles. TJ Holmes also qualified for the next round.

The biggest surprises for U.S. athletes in Friday’s session were the early exits of hammer thrower Brooke Andersen and 800m runner Hanna Green. Andersen only managed a throw of 68.46m, far off her season best of 76.75m that ranks second in the world this year. Green, who is fifth on the season’s best list with a time of 1:58.19, faded to last place in a tightly packed slow heat.

Also in the women’s 800m, Ajee Wilson and Raevyn Rogers cruised to win their heats, and U.S. teammate Ce’Aira Brown advanced from a fast heat. Green and British hopeful Lynsey Sharp were among the surprise non-qualifiers. Reigning champion Caster Semenya is not in Doha because she has refused treatment to lower her testosterone level.

READ: Semenya will not go to Doha to collect belated 2011 medal

In the hammer throw, DeAnna Price needed only one throw to meet the automatic qualifying mark, and Gwen Berry also advanced.

Olympic long jump champion Jeff Henderson needed a strong third jump to qualify and sailed to an 8.12m mark, second only to Cuban star Juan Michael Echevarria. U.S. jumper Steffin McCarter sailed 8.04m to qualify as well.

Other U.S. field event favorites all advanced.

The pole vault trio of Sandi Morris, Katie Nageotte and Jenn Suhr all cleared the automatic qualifying height of 4.60m, though Suhr required a second attempt. They’ll have plenty of company, with 17 athletes clearing the bar.

Vashti Cunningham cleared the automatic qualifying height of 1.94m in the high jump, while teammate Tynita Butts advanced with a personal-best 1.92m. Inika McPherson did not advance.

TRACK AND FIELD WORLDS: TV Schedule | U.S. Roster

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Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Plenty was going badly for Coco Gauff in the second round of the Australian Open.

The double-faults kept coming Wednesday, nine in all. The deficits, too: First, she dropped the opening set against 74th-ranked Sorana Cirstea.

Then, after forcing a third, Gauff fell behind by a break, ceding 14 of 16 points with a series of mistakes. Later, after getting even at 3-all, Gauff was a mere two points from a loss.

None of that mattered. As she keeps showing, over and over, Gauff is not a typical 15-year-old. Not a typical tennis player, either.

And by getting past Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in a little more than two hours thanks to a more aggressive approach in the late going, she now has set up yet another Grand Slam showdown against Naomi Osaka.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

“I kind of felt the momentum changing,” Gauff said about turning things around against Cirstea. “I knew I had to keep pressing.”

Less than five months after their memorable meeting at the U.S. Open — Osaka won that one in straight sets, then consoled a crying Gauff on court and encouraged her to address the spectators — the two will face each other again. Like that time, Osaka is the major’s reigning champion and Gauff is making her debut at the tournament.

“I think I’ll be less nervous this time,” said Gauff, who eliminated seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the first round Monday. “I think I’m more confident this time around.”

As for what sticks with her about the post-match comforting Osaka offered in New York, Gauff said: “If I had a child or something, that’s something I would want my child to see. It just shows what being a competitor really is. You might hate the person on the court, but off the court you love them — not really, like, ‘hate,’ but you want to win. Sometimes when we’re on the court, we say things we don’t mean because we have that mentality. When it’s all said and done, we still look at each other with respect.”

Other winners included Serena Williams — 6-2, 6-3 against Tamara Zidansek in a match that finished with the Rod Laver Arena retractable roof closed because of rain — No. 1 Ash Barty, 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and two-time major champion Petra Kvitova, the runner-up to Osaka in Australia a year ago.

In the last featured match of the night, No. 10 Madison Keys defeated Arantxa Rus 7-6 (7-3), 6-2.

Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic required all of 95 minutes to breeze past Japanese wild-card entry Tatsuma Ito 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, while Roger Federer swept Filip Krajinovic 6-1, 6-4, 6-1.

Gauff was not at her very best on a windy afternoon against Cirstea but managed to figure her way out of trouble repeatedly. Gauff demonstrated plenty of grit, yes, and also enthusiasm, pumping herself up by shaking a fist and yelling, “Come on!” after most of her successful points down the stretch.

All the while, Gauff was supported by a Melbourne Arena crowd that chanted, “Let’s go, Coco! Let’s go!”

Her father, Corey, was animated in the stands, too, except when he was squeezing his eyes shut at critical moments.

There were several of those for his precocious daughter, who was ranked only 313th last year when she became the youngest player in history to qualify for Wimbledon, then wound up beating Williams there en route to the fourth round.

It is a measure of her came-so-soon stardom that Gauff was playing at Melbourne Park’s third-largest stadium Wednesday, even though this was a matchup between a pair of players ranked outside the top 60 and with one career Grand Slam quarterfinal between them, more than a decade ago (Cirstea made it that far at the 2009 French Open).

Indeed, every Grand Slam singles match — “every” being a relative term, of course, because this was No. 9 — of the 67th-ranked Gauff’s nascent career has been placed on a show court.

This was the first main draw match at a major for Gauff in which she held a better ranking than her opponent.

Didn’t seem that way at the outset: Gauff dropped the first set. After forcing things to a third, she trailed 3-0. After making it 3-3, Gauff needed to get through one more gut-check: Twice, she was two points from departing.

But the American teenager broke in the next-to-last game, then held to win.

How did Gauff get through this test?

“Just my will to win,” she said. “My parents, they always told me I can come back, no matter what the score is.”

Osaka worked through some frustrations Wednesday by grabbing her racket with both hands and chucking it to the ground, tossing away a tennis ball and kicking the racket along the court, to boot.

Then she plopped herself down on her sideline seat and draped a towel over her head. Soon, she was gathering herself and defeating Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4.

“I mean, my racket just magically flew out of my hand. I couldn’t control it,” Osaka said with a mischievous smile. “I think that’s how I dealt with my frustration. It was a bit childish. I just want to play one match without throwing my racket or kicking it. That’s all I want.”

Perhaps because her news conference took place while Gauff and Cirstea were still playing, Osaka deflected a question seeking some sort of lookahead to the third round, saying simply she would go watch the end of that match.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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John Isner leaning toward skipping Olympics again

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John Isner, the highest-ranked U.S. male singles tennis player, is considering skipping the Olympics for a second straight time.

“I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, but as of right now, I think I’m leaning towards not playing,” the 19th-ranked player said at the Australian Open on Tuesday. “It’s about scheduling. I know the Olympics, it’s a fantastic honor. There’s no doubt about that. … Right now, at this stage in my career, it’s not a huge priority for me. So that’s probably the main reason I won’t be going. I certainly love playing in the summer in America, and I’m going to focus on that.”

The Tokyo Games take place the same week as a lower-level ATP Tour event in Atlanta that Isner, a former University of Georgia star, has won five times.

Other notable male players already said they will pass on Tokyo, including Sam Querrey, the top American in Olympic qualifying standings.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, a two-time French Open finalist, is prioritizing an ATP event in Kitzbühel the week of the Olympics. The U.S. doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan are not planning to play the Olympics in their final season before retirement, their manager said in November.

“The Olympics is very tough on the schedule … especially with Davis Cup,” Isner said in 2016, according to USA Today. “I think the fact that they have no [ATP ranking] points [at the Olympics], to be honest, was a pretty big factor as well. Obviously the Olympics is not about the money, but no points I think hindered me a bit.”

Isner, who turns 35 on April 26, is likely giving up his last chance to play Olympic singles. In his only Olympic participation, he reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Games, plus lost an opening-round doubles match there with Andy Roddick.

The top four U.S. men qualify for Tokyo, assuming they are among the top 60 overall qualifiers (maximum four per country) after this spring’s French Open.

Taylor FritzReilly Opelka, Steve Johnson and Tommy Paul are the U.S. men currently in Olympic qualifying position if excluding Querrey and Isner.

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