Serena Williams
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Serena Williams to play U.S. Open without fans

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Here’s how all-in Serena Williams is on participating in the 2020 U.S. Open: She set up a practice area at her home with the new brand of hard courts being used at Flushing Meadows this year.

For all the doubts about which top players will actually enter the first Grand Slam tennis tournament of the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest name in the sport made clear Wednesday that she intends to be there when the main draw begins Aug. 31.

“Ultimately, I really cannot wait to return to New York,” Williams said in a video that was shown during the U.S. Tennis Association presentation of plans for its marquee event.

“I feel like the USTA is going to do a really good job of ensuring everything is amazing and everything is perfect and everyone is safe,” said the owner of an Open-era record 23 major singles titles. “It’s going to be exciting. It (will have been) six months since a lot of us have played professional tennis.”

The women’s and men’s tours have been suspended since early March because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The French Open was postponed from May to September, while Wimbledon was canceled for the first time in 75 years.

The USTA got the green light Tuesday from the New York state government to go ahead with its proposal for a scaled-down tournament. There will be no spectators, fewer events, fewer on-court officials and regular temperature checks and occasional nasal swabs for COVID-19. Most players — and their reduced entourages — will stay at two designated hotels, although more expensive private homes are also an option.

“I’ll certainly miss the fans, don’t get me wrong,” said Williams, a 38-year-old American. “Just being out there, and that New York crowd, and hearing everyone cheer. I’ll really miss that, getting me through some of those tough matches.”

Her backing for the tournament — she has won it six times and was the runner-up in 2018 and 2019 — is certainly a boost for broadcaster ESPN and perhaps will help sway other uncertain players to compete, too.

“It’s clear we’re extremely excited and appreciative she’s committed this early to play the tournament,” USTA CEO Mike Dowse said. “As we all know, she transcends tennis. She’s so much bigger than our sport.”

Defending men’s champion Rafael Nadal and both No. 1-ranked players, Novak Djokovic and Ash Barty, have expressed varying levels of concern about heading to New York. Simona Halep, a two-time major champion, said Wednesday she is leaning toward not playing.

“It’s a real mixed reaction right now,” Steve Simon, the CEO of the women’s tour, said in a telephone interview. “It’s going to be fluid, but we’re going to see an awful lot of players wanting to come back and play again if they can travel and obviously if they feel like it’s a safe environment to play in.”

New York was, at one point, the coronavirus epicenter in the U.S. — a facility housing indoor courts at the U.S. Open’s site in Queens was used as a field hospital with hundreds of beds at the height of the crisis — but cases have dropped significantly and the city has started reopening.

Tournament director Stacey Allaster said Williams was one of several people — including players, coaches and agents — she’s been in touch with via email, telephone or video calls about possible participation.

“Through the journey, and as word started to spread earlier this week that the event was happening, I did (hear) that they want to play and that they are training and that they’re comfortable with the plan,” Allaster said. “It will be an evolving journey and, ultimately, the athletes will decide. And we’re confident that who decides (to come) will put on a great show with great stars.”

Halep is currently ranked No. 2 and is the reigning champion at Wimbledon. She also won the French Open in 2018.

Her best showing at Flushing Meadows was a semifinal appearance in 2015.

“Given the conditions outlined in the U.S. Open announcement this morning, as of today I do not currently plan to play in NYC,” Halep said in a statement emailed to the AP. “However, as we know, this situation is fluid and that the conditions may change and improve before the entry deadline in mid July. I would like to underline that my decision is not set in stone.”

Another two-time major champion, Petra Kvitova, released a statement that indicated she has yet to decide whether to go to New York.

“Hopefully the COVID-19 numbers and conditions around travel restrictions continue to improve,” Kvitova said, “in order to make the decision to play an easy one.”

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World Alpine Skiing Championships on for 2021 after request to delay rejected

Alpine Skiing World Championships
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GENEVA (AP) — A request by the organizers of next year’s skiing world championships in Italy to postpone the event by one year was rejected Thursday by the International Ski Federation.

FIS ruled that the event will go ahead from Feb. 9-21, 2021, in Cortina d’Ampezzo — the highlight of an Alpine season that faces challenges to find safe protocols for international travel and attending races in Europe, North America and China.

The Veneto region of northern Italy was hit hard by the coronavirus and the season-ending World Cup races in Cortina in mid-March were canceled. That week-long event was to be a test for the 2021 worlds.

“The last month of efforts to come to this solution demonstrates the strong collaborative spirit of the ski family and stakeholders.” FIS president Gian-Franco Kasper said.

Organizers in Italy have said they expect losses of about 30 million euros ($34 million) if the worlds are also canceled. They asked for a postponement to March 2022, which would be only weeks after the Beijing Olympics.

“But we will be ready in any case and we will show that these world championships can change the history of a region despite the current difficulties,” Alessandro Benetton, president of the Cortina organizing committee, said in a statement.

Italian racer Sofia Goggia, the 2018 Olympic downhill champion, said she was “happy for Cortina because it will host the first major international event after the coronavirus epidemic.”

Cortina, which hosted the 1956 Olympics, will co-host the 2026 Winter Games with Milan and use the worlds as a showcase for the resort.

The women’s World Cup downhill on the Olympia delle Tofane course each January is one of the most scenic in the sport with a signature jump between tall outcrops of jagged rock.

The Dolomites venue was awarded the 2021 worlds by FIS after missing out as a candidate four straight times from 2013-19.

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Russia track and field athlete clearance frozen due to unpaid fine

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MONACO (AP) — The program allowing Russian track athletes to compete internationally will be frozen because the country’s federation failed to pay a fine on time, World Athletics said Thursday.

The Russian track federation, known as RusAF, owes a $5 million fine and another $1.31 million in costs for various doping-related work and legal wrangles. World Athletics said RusAF missed Wednesday’s deadline to pay.

World Athletics said it would freeze the work of the Doping Review Board, which vets Russian athletes who want the “authorized neutral athlete” status that allows them to compete internationally, and its taskforce monitoring RusAF’s anti-doping reforms.

World Athletics said both bodies will be “put on hold” until its council meets to discuss the situation at the end of July.

“RusAF is letting its athletes down badly,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said in a statement. “We have done as much as we can to expedite our ANA process and support RusAF with its reinstatement plan, but seemingly to no avail.”

RusAF president Yevgeny Yurchenko earlier told the Tass state news agency that his federation’s finances were damaged by the coronavirus pandemic and that it had asked for more time to pay.

World Athletics’ statement didn’t directly address that issue, but said Russia hadn’t indicated when it would pay.

Russia was fined $10 million by World Athletics in March, with $5 million suspended for two years, after the federation admitted to breaking anti-doping rules and obstructing an investigation.

The Athletics Integrity Unit said fake documents were used under the previous management to give an athlete an alibi for missing a doping test.

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