Joe Kovacs revisits epic shot put title, months after career intervention

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Eight months before Joe Kovacs became a world champion again, he was at the center of a career intervention in a kitchen.

It was February 2019. Kovacs, the 2015 World champion and 2016 Olympic silver medalist in the shot put, had dipped down into a college-level meet and lost to an athlete that he coached.

Kovacs threw 19.52 meters, nearly 10 feet shy of his personal best. He failed to break 20 meters at a meet for the first time in four and a half years.

In the kitchen that evening, the two most important women in his life (and his career) voiced openings for him to consider retirement, according to Spikes. They were his mom, Joanna, a youth throwing champion herself who taught her son the shot put in a high school parking lot. And his wife of four months, Ashley, an All-American thrower at Kentucky who had become his latest coach.

“If you want to quit you can, I’m going to support you either way,” Ashley said, according to Kovacs’ essay in Spikes. “But, I don’t really understand why you think you can’t throw far anymore. Either way, this half-in, half-out stuff has to go. I’m tired of looking at it.”

Kovacs, a 5-foot-11, 300-pound licensed pilot, picked himself up. He made the world championships team by placing second at nationals. Still, he went to Doha last autumn ranked sixth in the world for the year.

In the world championships final, New Zealand’s Tom Walsh opened with a 22.90-meter throw, six inches farther than any man in the field had ever recorded. As Kovacs went into the sixth and last round, he was in fourth place but confident.

Kovacs had a pep talk with his coach. “No safe throws. She doesn’t want to see anything that’s not far,” he recounted to NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey recently. “She doesn’t care if it’s a foul. She wants to see a far throw happen.”

Kovacs committed. He spun one and a half times around the ring and let loose like never before. He roared. Not uncommon for him. The mark: 22.91 meters — one centimeter better than Walsh, a personal best by more than a foot and the world’s best throw in 29 years.

“I left with a PR, which about probably eight months before that, I never thought I would,” he said. “[I thought in February] maybe give up competing. Never even PR ever again.”

Kovacs then found his coach. “I love you,” he told Ashley. “We did it.”

“I had a lot of knowledge about the shot put. I won a world championship and an Olympic medal before this, but I really thought about being done the year before,” he told Diffey. “I made a transition. I moved [from California] to Ohio. I made some changes in my technique that didn’t work out that well, so she really got me back on track when I started to work with her. I didn’t move to her for her to be my coach, but I moved to her because I wanted to marry her and I loved her. But it evolved because she’s a great college coach. She’s had a lot of national championships, and she was watching me every day kind of go downhill.”

Because of what happened in 2019, Kovacs believes he benefits from the Olympic postponement to 2021 compared to other athletes.

“Mentally, I’m probably doing better than most athletes because I’ve been around and I’ve been at a low in my career and I’ve come back from it,” he said. “So I’m not afraid to kind of rebuild things and take some time off.”

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Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz exit French Open, leaving no U.S. men

Frances Tiafoe French Open
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Frances Tiafoe kept coming oh so close to extending his French Open match against Alexander Zverev: 12 times Saturday night, the American was two points from forcing things to a fifth set.

Yet the 12th-seeded Tiafoe never got closer than that.

Instead, the 22nd-seeded Zverev finished out his 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-1, 7-6 (5) victory after more than 3 1/2 hours in Court Philippe Chatrier to reach the fourth round. With Tiafoe’s exit, none of the 16 men from the United States who were in the bracket at the start of the tournament are still in the field.

“I mean, for the majority of the match, I felt like I was in control,” said Tiafoe, a 25-year-old from Maryland who fell to 1-7 against Zverev.

“It’s just tough,” he said about a half-hour after his loss ended, rubbing his face with his hand. “I should be playing the fifth right now.”

Two other American men lost earlier Saturday: No. 9 seed Taylor Fritz and unseeded Marcos Giron.

No. 23 Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina beat Fritz 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, and Nicolas Jarry of Chile eliminated Giron 6-2, 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-3.

There are three U.S women remaining: No. 6 Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens and Bernarda Pera.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

It is the second year in a row that zero men from the United States will participate in the fourth round at Roland Garros. If nothing else, it stands as a symbolic step back for the group after what seemed to be a couple of breakthrough showings at the past two majors.

For Tiafoe, getting to the fourth round is never the goal.

“I want to win the trophy,” he said.

Remember: No American man has won any Grand Slam title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open. The French Open has been the least successful major in that stretch with no U.S. men reaching the quarterfinals since Andre Agassi in 2003.

But Tiafoe beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the U.S. Open along the way to getting to the semifinals there last September, the first time in 16 years the host nation had a representative in the men’s final four at Flushing Meadows.

Then, at the Australian Open this January, Tommy Paul, Sebastian Korda and Ben Shelton became the first trio of Americans in the men’s quarterfinals in Melbourne since 2000. Paul made it a step beyond that, to the semifinals.

After that came this benchmark: 10 Americans were ranked in the ATP’s Top 50, something that last happened in June 1995.

On Saturday, after putting aside a whiffed over-the-shoulder volley — he leaned atop the net for a moment in disbelief — Tiafoe served for the fourth set at 5-3, but couldn’t seal the deal.

In that game, and the next, and later on, too, including at 5-all in the tiebreaker, he would come within two points of owning that set.

Each time, Zverev claimed the very next point. When Tiafoe sent a forehand wide to end it, Zverev let out two big yells. Then the two, who have been pals for about 15 years, met for a warm embrace at the net, and Zverev placed his hand atop Tiafoe’s head.

“He’s one of my best friends on tour,” said Zverev, a German who twice has reached the semifinals on the red clay of Paris, “but on the court, I’m trying to win.”

At the 2022 French Open, Zverev tore ligaments in his right ankle while playing Nadal in the semifinals and had to stop.

“It’s been definitely the hardest year of my life, that’s for sure,” Zverev said. “I love tennis more than anything in the world.”

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2023 French Open women’s singles draw, scores

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At the French Open, Iga Swiatek of Poland eyes a third title at Roland Garros and a fourth Grand Slam singles crown overall.

The tournament airs live on NBC Sports, Peacock and Tennis Channel through championship points in Paris.

Swiatek, the No. 1 seed from Poland, can join Serena Williams and Justine Henin as the lone women to win three or more French Opens since 2000.

Having turned 22 on Wednesday, she can become the youngest woman to win three French Opens since Monica Seles in 1992 and the youngest woman to win four Slams overall since Williams in 2002.

FRENCH OPEN: Broadcast Schedule | Men’s Draw

But Swiatek is not as dominant as in 2022, when she went 16-0 in the spring clay season during an overall 37-match win streak.

She retired from her last pre-French Open match with a right thigh injury and said it wasn’t serious. Before that, she lost the final of another clay-court tournament to Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

Sabalenka, the No. 2 seed, is her top remaining challenger in Paris.

No. 3 Jessica Pegula, the highest-seeded American man or woman, was eliminated in the third round. No. 4 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, who has three wins over Swiatek this year, withdrew before her third-round match due to illness.

No. 6 Coco Gauff, runner-up to Swiatek last year, is the best hope to become the first American to win a Grand Slam singles title since Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major drought is the longest for U.S. women since Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.

MORE: All you need to know for 2023 French Open

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2023 French Open Women’s Singles Draw

French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw