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Sofia Kenin wins Australian Open; youngest American women’s Grand Slam champ since Serena Williams

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Sofia Kenin‘s tennis life has so far been one of labels. From pre-teen prodigy, hitting with Anna Kournikova and getting her picture taken playing with Kim Clijsters‘ hair. To opponent, the woman who beat Serena Williams in last year’s French Open third round.

Now, a new title: Australian Open champion. And perhaps now, beyond labels, more deserved name recognition.

Kenin, at best the U.S.’ fifth most well-known active tennis player, became the youngest U.S. woman to win a Grand Slam since Williams in 2002. The 21-year-old beat Spain’s two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 in the Melbourne final on Saturday.

Kenin showcased her trademark ferocity, one that belies her 5-foot-7 frame and that she attributes to her birth nation of Russia. The crucial time was at 2-all in the final set. Kenin, born in Moscow and raised in Florida by Russian parents, rallied from love-40 down on her serve and won the last four games.

“I knew I needed to come up with the best shot, five best shots of my life,” she said. “It got me to win a Grand Slam.”

And to supplant Williams as the highest-ranked U.S. woman in the world (No. 7 overall). She’s the youngest woman to take that label since Williams was year-end No. 1 in 2002.

“Obviously,” Kenin said, “things are going to change for me.”

Kenin had never before gone past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. But she hasn’t doubted herself in more than a year. She backed up that win over Williams in Paris by beating top-ranked Ash Barty of Australia last summer and again in the semifinals in Melbourne with the crowd against her.

Younger Americans had bigger Grand Slam breakthrough in 2019 — Coco Gauff, 15, and Amanda Anisimova, 18 — but it was Kenin who was the WTA’s Most Improved Player last season. She made sure to point out that award in her champion’s press conference Saturday, with what appeared to be a half-full glass of champagne on the table in front of her.

“I knew I needed to establish myself to get to where I am,” said Kenin, who jumped from No. 52 at the end of 2018 to No. 14 at the end of 2019. “All the confidence has come with all the matches that I’ve had, the success I’ve had in 2019.”

Kenin said she overcame nerves to win each of her seven matches the last two weeks, including coming from a set down to oust Gauff in the round of 16.

“[Doubles parter] Bethanie [Mattek-Sands] tweeted I’ve been crying before every match,” said Kenin, who moved to No. 1 in U.S. Olympic qualifying and is all but assured one of four singles spots in Tokyo (and probably a doubles spot with Mattek-Sands, potentially leaving one doubles spot to be doled out between Gauff and Venus Williams after the French Open).

Kenin has repeated the phrase “American dream” this past week. Her Russian parents came to New York City in 1987 with $286, according to New York Times and ESPN profiles of Kenin after she uspet Williams in Paris. They went back to Russia for Kenin’s birth, then back to the States.

Kenin began playing tennis at 5 and honed her game in Florida. She became a U.S. age-group No. 1 in the 12, 14, 16 and 18 divisions. Sonyakenin.us was up and running when she was 9 (her nickname is Sonya). She made a junior Grand Slam final and reached No. 2 in the junior world rankings.

But unlike Gauff and Anisimova (and both Williams sisters), Kenin didn’t start making her mark in majors until she turned 20. Kenin considered delaying her pro career in 2017. Had she lost in the first round of the U.S. Open that year for a third straight time, she would have considered enrolling at the University of Miami, according to the Washington Post.

Instead, she beat two Americans before losing to Maria Sharapova in the third round. She earned $140,000, accepted it and announced on Instagram, “Can’t wait for what the future holds for me.”

“My dream officially came true,” Kenin said on court Saturday. “I cannot even describe this feeling. It’s so emotional, and I’ve worked so hard. I’m just so grateful to be standing here. Dreams come true, so if you have a dream, go for it, and it’s going to come true.”

MORE: Coco Gauff eyes Olympics; can she qualify?

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Who is Italy’s greatest Olympian?

Alberto Tomba
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Italy ranks sixth on the total Olympic medal list, thanks in large part to its fencers. Italian fencers have won a leading 125 medals, more than double the nation’s total in any other sport. The Italians are known for their personalities, from La Bomba to the Cannibal, with six of their best detailed here …

Deborah Compagnoni
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only Alpine skier to earn gold at three straight Olympics. Compagnoni overcame a broken knee as a junior racer and life-saving surgery to remove 27 inches of her intestine in 1990 to win the Albertville 1992 super-G by 1.8 seconds. It remains the largest margin of victory in the discipline for either gender since 1968. The following day, Compagnoni tore knee ligaments in the giant slalom. She returned to win the GS at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Compagnoni ended her Olympic career with the biggest rout in a GS at a Winter Games, prevailing by 1.41 seconds in Nagano.

Klaus Dibiasi
Diving
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only diver to win the same individual event three times. The Austrian-born Dibiasi took platform silver in 1964 at age 17, then three straight golds through 1976. Dibiasi was coached by his father, who was 10th on platform at the 1936 Berlin Games. In his final Olympics, Dibiasi held off a 16-year-old Greg Louganis, who would go on to challenge, if not overtake, Dibiasi as the greatest male diver in history.

Eugenio Monti
Bobsled
Six Olympic Medals

Regarded by many as the greatest bobsled driver in history. Monti captured two silver medals in 1956, missed the 1960 Winter Games that didn’t include bobsled, then two bronzes in 1964 and a pair of golds at age 40 in 1968. On top of that, the nine-time world champion is remembered for an act of sportsmanship in 1964. In between runs, Monti lent a bolt off his own two-man sled to a British team whose sled was damaged. The Brits took gold, ahead of both Italian sleds.

Alberto Tomba
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

“La Bomba” dazzled by sweeping the giant slalom and slalom at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, after dubbing himself the “Messiah of Skiing“ beforehand. Known for his man-about-town ways, Tomba offered one of his gold medals to East German figure skater Katarina Witt should she fall short in her event. After Witt repeated as gold medalist, the story goes that Tomba showed up with a bouquet of roses and an autographed picture of himself, made out out to “Katerina.” “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m.,” Tomba once said. “Now I live it up with five women until 3 a.m,”

Valentina Vezzali
Fencing
Six Olympic Gold Medals

An 18-year-old Vezzali was an alternate for the 1992 Olympics, forced to watch on TV as the Italian women took team foil gold. Vezzali made the next five Olympics, winning medals in all nine of her events, including three straight individual titles, the last as a mom. Vezzali finished her career with nine total Olympic medals, 25 world championships medals, a flag bearer honor at the 2012 Opening Ceremony and as a member of Italy’s parliament.

Armin Zoeggeler
Luge
Six Olympic Medals

“The Cannibal” retired in 2014 as the first athlete to earn a medal in the same individual event at six straight Olympics. Zoeggeler earned silver and bronze medals in 1994 and 1998, then overtook German legend Georg Hackl for gold in 2002, followed by winning at home in Torino in 2006. He held on for bronze medals in 2010 and 2014, behind the new German luge star, Felix Loch, who would be coached by Hackl. Growing up on top of a steep hill, Zoeggeler began sledding at age 7 to catch the school bus at the bottom.

GREATEST OLYMPIANS: Germany | Liechtenstein | Japan

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Kurt Angle recalls devastation, exultation of Olympic wrestling gold medal

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Kurt Angle doesn’t remember much from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but he won’t forget that moment of deep emotional pain.

In the 100kg final, Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi were tied 1-1 after regulation and an overtime period.. Eight total minutes of wrestling. They also had the same number of passivity calls, forcing a judges’ decision to determine the gold medalist.

After deliberation, the referee stood between each wrestler in the middle of the mat. He held each’s wrist, ready to reveal the champion to the Georgia World Congress Center crowd — and to the athletes. Angle, now 51, has rarely watched video of the match. But he distinctly remembers, in his peripheral vision, Jadidi’s left arm rising.

“I thought I lost,” Angle said by phone this week. “So right away, I was like, s—, four more years.”

Turns out, the Iranian was raising his own arm. An instant later, the referee suppressed Jadidi. He lifted Angle’s right arm. The wrestler sobbed.

“I had so much emotion because I was devastated and then I was told that I won,” Angle said. “It was a very odd experience. I didn’t know how to handle it. It felt like my father died all over again. That’s how much grief I had. Then, all of a sudden, you won.”

Angle thought of two people immediately after he won, falling to his knees in prayer. First, his father, David, who died in a construction accident when Angle was 16. Second, the 1984 Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, his coach who was murdered by John du Pont six months before the Games.

Angle went on to become one of the most famous U.S. gold medalists of the Atlanta Games, due largely to a two-decade career as a professional wrestler, including as a world heavyweight champion with the WWE.

It would have been different if the referee kept Jadidi’s arm in the air. Angle went into the Olympics knowing it would be his last competition, but only if he took gold. Anything less, and he would continue on, perhaps into his 30s and the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite everything Angle went through just to get to Atlanta.

In the year leading up to the Olympics, Angle lost Schultz, broke his neck at the U.S. Open and, five minutes before each match at the Olympic Trials, received 12 shots of novocaine to numb the pain long enough to advance to the next round. Angle later developed a painkiller addiction.

Angle, a Pennsylvania native, was part of the Foxcatcher club when du Pont shot and killed Schultz. Angle said he wasn’t consulted for the 2014 film “Foxcatcher,” but he thought it was well done save a few instances of dramatic license.

“Unfortunately, I hate to admit this, but if it weren’t for Team Foxcatcher, I probably wouldn’t have won my gold medal,” Angle said. “I probably wouldn’t have known Dave Schultz, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did. It sucks because, to have to thank John du Pont for the ability of allowing me to pay me to wrestle full time and win a world championship [in 1995] and Olympic gold medal, that was huge, but he killed Dave Schultz. The club would have thrived to this day. It just sucks it turned out the way it did, because it made me the best wrestler in the world. Dave Schultz had a lot to do with that, but a lot of wrestlers that followed could have not had to worry about money and could have trained and competed.”

Angle shared his gold medal with, he estimated, thousands of people before housing it in a safe.

“The gold was wearing off,” Angle said. “One kid, I remember, I was at an elementary school, and he grabbed my medal by the ribbon and started twirling it around real fast. He let go of it, and it hit the wall. There’s a big dent in my gold medal. That was the last time I brought it to an elementary school.”

Angle announced in 2011, at age 42, that he was training to come back for the 2012 Olympic Trials. He never made it, calling it off with a knee injury.

“But I trained hard for it,” Angle said, noting he still kept up appearances with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. “I will tell you this, I wouldn’t have made the team. My goal was to place in the top three. I just missed the [thrill of] competition.”

It meant that Angle’s last match remained that Olympic final. His last moment as a freestyle wrestler having his arm raised.

“All I wanted to do was win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal, and I did them both,” Angle said, sobbing, just off the mat that night in Atlanta. “If I died tonight, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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