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.

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“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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U.S. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

FIBA Women's World Cup

The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new uptempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach

GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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