What Olympic baseball, softball will look like for the first time since 2008, and perhaps the last time

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With the Tokyo Olympics postponed to 2021, OlympicTalk is taking a sport-by-sport look at where things stood before sports were halted and how global circumstances could alter the Olympic picture …

Baseball and softball are in the Olympics for the first time since 2008, but won’t stay there.
This is, for now, a one-time-only return to the Olympic program. Baseball and softball were among a handful of sports added for the Tokyo Games only, proposed by organizers given the popularity within the host country.

Paris 2024 chose not to propose baseball and softball. The IOC could re-add baseball and softball to the regular Olympic program before the 2028 Los Angeles Games, perhaps if 2021 goes well. Or, LA organizers could copy Tokyo and propose the sports be added for their Games only.

The U.S. qualified for Tokyo as a favorite in softball. Baseball is a different story.
The Tokyo field will be six teams in each sport, down from eight at the 2008 Beijing Games. The softball field is already set. Japan, which won the 2008 Olympic title, got in as host. The U.S. took the next spot by winning the most recent world title in 2018 (over Japan in an extra-inning final). Italy, Mexico, Canada and Australia round it out.

In baseball, the U.S. gets up to three chances to qualify. It missed on the first try, the Premier12 event in Tokyo in November. The U.S. was stunned by Mexico with an Olympic spot at stake. The next qualifier was to be a North and South American event in Arizona in March, but that was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Top competition there was to come from Canada, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. If the U.S doesn’t get the lone spot available at the rescheduled tournament, it could try at the last-chance, global qualifying tournament.

2021 Olympic Capsules: Track and Field | Swimming | Gymnastics
Beach Volleyball | Diving | Basketball | Golf | Tennis

Softball’s biggest names will be in Tokyo. Baseball’s likely will not.
The already named U.S. Olympic softball roster includes two well known pitchers from the previous Olympic generation — Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman, who combined to throw every U.S. pitch in the 2008 Olympic final. And Rachel Garcia, the 2018 and 2019 NCAA Player of the Year from UCLA.

Despite Bryce Harper‘s adamant wishes, active MLB players are not expected to be made available for the Olympics. MLBers were never part of the Olympics in the previous medal generation from 1992 through 2008. It was always minor leaguers or college players, though some went on to All-Star careers (Jason GiambiNomar GarciaparraRoy Oswalt, Stephen Strasburg among them). In the first round of qualifying, the U.S. team was made up of mostly double-A and triple-A caliber players. For the second round (before it was postponed due to the coronavirus), MLB reduced restrictions, allowing players on 40-man rosters, but likely not active 26-man roster players.

This could benefit Japan, whose domestic league is expected to take an Olympic break in 2021, granted some Japanese superstars are in MLB (Shohei OhtaniMasahiro Tanaka). By the way, Ichiro, before he retired from MLB, ruled out bidding for an honorary spot on the Olympic team.

Familiar names are still lining up for Olympic baseball, though.
If the U.S. does qualify, it could have five-time MLB All-Star outfielder Adam Jones as an option. Jones, one of five Americans to play at each of the last two World Baseball Classics, signed in December to play in Japan’s domestic league with an eye on attaining Olympic eligibility.

Another MLB All-Star, retired second baseman Ian Kinsler, made aliyah over the winter to fulfill Israeli citizenship requirements. Israel had a magical run to qualify for the Olympics for the first time last September. Yet another, retired first baseman Justin Morneau, was originally named to Canada’s team for Premier12 before withdrawing due to an unspecified setback. Six-time All-Star slugger Jose Bautista showed reported interest in playing for the Dominican Republic in Olympic qualifying, perhaps also as a two-way player.

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MORE: David Beckham’s Olympic omission, explained

Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

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