Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens set U.S. Open clash

Serena Williams
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Some of Serena Williams‘ earliest memories are of schoolwork. Learning the alphabet in particular. She stayed up doing an assignment, but kept erasing her writing, crying because it wasn’t perfect. In the instance she remembered, she never finished the homework.

“That’s been really the story of my life,” she said Thursday night.

The story of the last two years has been Williams’ unfinished business in Grand Slams. She reached the finals of the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 2018 and 2019 and lost each match, so far unable to win a 24th major to tie Margaret Court‘s record total.

Imperfection marked Williams’ return to competition in August during the coronavirus pandemic. She played five matches. All five went the full three sets. At the U.S. Open this week, she swept American Kristie Ahn in the first round, but dropped her opening service game each time.

Then on Thursday, Williams appeared en route to a more Serena-like rout of 117th-ranked Russian Margarita Gasparyan.

She was up a set and a break within 45 minutes. Then Gasparyan broke back and, on Williams’ next service game, made her play 16 points to hold. Williams broke Gasparyan one more time for the 6-2, 6-4 victory.

US OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

“I think that’s been what’s holding me back is I get frustrated,” Williams said. “But I’m out here, and I’m fighting. If anything, it could help me know what not to do next time.”

Next up is an anticipated third-round duel with 2017 U.S. Open Sloane Stephens on Saturday. The streaky Stephens swept 130th-ranked Olga Govortsova of Belarus 6-2, 6-2 in a much more routine victory earlier Thursday. It marked the first time since last September that Stephens won back-to-back matches.

“I played well, built on my first match,” said Stephens, who entered the Open with a 2020 record of 1-7. “Really looking forward to [playing in the third round], another shot just to have an opportunity to play, obviously, without having played that much this year.”

Williams is 5-1 against Stephens, winning the last four since Stephens upset her in the 2013 Australian Open quarterfinals. That marked the first time Williams lost to a younger American, and that’s only happened three other times since (Madison BrengleSofia Kenin and Shelby Rogers).

“She’s beaten me before, so she knows how to play well,” Williams said of Stephens. “She looks like she’s not taking a lot of energy and then, bam, there’s five winners.”

The Williams-Stephens winner could play more Americans — potentially, No. 22 seed Amanda Anisimova in the fourth round, No. 7 Madison Keys in the quarterfinals and No. 2 Sofia Kenin in the semifinals.

Williams leads the U.S. Olympic race for four singles berths. Stephens is well outside a qualifying spot but has nine months to chase points. The Olympic field is determined by the WTA rankings after the 2021 French Open.

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Mikaela Shiffrin heads to world championships with medal records in sight

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Before Mikaela Shiffrin can hold the World Cup wins record, she can become the most decorated Alpine skier in modern world championships history.

Shiffrin takes a respite from World Cup pursuits for the biennial world championships in France. She is expected to race at least four times, beginning with Monday’s combined.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup victories in 23 starts this season, her best since her record 17-win 2018-19 campaign, but world championships do not count toward the World Cup.

Shiffrin remains one career victory behind Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record 86 World Cup wins until at least her next World Cup start in March.

Shiffrin has been more successful at worlds than at the Olympics and even on the World Cup. She has 11 medals in 13 world championships races dating to her 2013 debut, including making the podium in each of her last 10 events.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

She enters worlds one shy of the modern, post-World War II individual records for total medals (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won 12) and gold medals (Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson won seven).

Worlds take place exactly one year after Shiffrin missed the medals in all of her Olympic races, but that’s not motivating her.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that these big events, they can go amazing, and they can go terrible, and you’re going to survive no matter what,” she said after her most recent World Cup last Sunday. “So I kind of don’t care.”

Shiffrin ranks No. 1 in the world this season in the giant slalom (Feb. 16 at worlds) and slalom (Feb. 18).

This year’s combined is one run of super-G coupled with one run of slalom (rather than one downhill and one slalom), which also plays to her strengths. She won that event, with that format, at the last worlds in 2021. The combined isn’t contested on the World Cup, so it’s harder to project favorites.

Shiffrin is also a medal contender in the super-G (Feb. 8), despite starting just two of five World Cup super-Gs this season (winning one of them).

She is not planning to race the downhill (Feb. 11), which she often skips on the World Cup and has never contested at a worlds. Nor is she expected for the individual parallel (Feb. 15), a discipline she hasn’t raced in three years in part due to the strain it puts on her back with the format being several runs for the medalists.

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Lucas Braathen, world’s top male slalom skier, in doubt for world championships

Lucas Braathen
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Norway’s Lucas Braathen, the world’s top male slalom skier this season, is doubtful to compete in the world championships slalom on Feb. 19 after appendix surgery on Tuesday.

“It’s been a tough couple of days fighting after surprisingly finding out about quite an intense infection on my appendix,” Braathen, a 22-year-old soccer convert with a Brazilian mom, posted on social media. “I’ve been through surgery and I’m blessed that it went successfully.”

The Norway Alpine skiing team doctor said Braathen’s recovery will take a few weeks, but there is a small possibility he can make it back for the world championships slalom, which is on the final day of the two-week competition.

Braathen has two slalom wins and one giant slalom win this World Cup season. He will miss Saturday’s slalom in Chamonix, France, the last race before worlds. Countryman Henrik Kristoffersen and Swiss Daniel Yule can overtake him atop the World Cup slalom standings in Chamonix.

Braathen entered last year’s Olympics as the World Cup slalom leader and skied out in the first run at the Games.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

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