Fire

Serena's run ends at Aussie Open

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Serena's run ends at Aussie Open

From Comcast SportsNet
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Numbers told the surprising story for Serena Williams in her fourth-round loss at the Australian Open on Monday. Seven double-faults, including four in one game; 37 unforced errors, and a first-serve percentage of just over 50 percent that had her convinced "maybe I should have started serving lefty." Some other numbers indicated why her 6-2, 6-3 loss to Russia's Ekaterina Makarova on what she admitted was a still-sore left ankle was more of a shock, particularly at this stage of the year's first major. She has played 43 singles matches at Melbourne Park since she won the first of her five Australian Open titles in 2003, and Monday's loss was just her third. She's 54-7 since playing here for the first time in 1998, and she hasn't gone out this early here since 2006. "I'm not physically 100 percent, so I can't be so angry at myself, even though I'm very unhappy," Williams said. "I know that I can play a hundred times better than I did this whole tournament." Without Williams, who injured her left ankle in Brisbane two weeks ago, the only major winners still in contention were Maria Sharapova, defending champion Kim Clijsters and Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova. Sharapova earned the right to play Makarova in the quarterfinal when she beat Germany's Sabine Lisicki 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 in a night match. The 2008 champion blew a 3-0 lead in the opening set, needed three set points to win the second and advanced on her second match point despite making 47 unforced errors and eight double-faults. "A lot of ups and downs today -- fortunately I finished on a high note," she said. "Even though I didn't play my best tennis I fought to the end and sometimes that's what gets you through." Top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, still in search of her first Grand Slam title, played Clijsters in a quarterfinal on Tuesday. The Belgian veteran advanced to the quarterfinals with a comeback win over Li Na on Sunday in a rematch of the 2011 decider, while Kvitova had some trouble late before beating former top-ranked Ana Ivanovic 6-2, 7-6 (2) Monday. Kvitova will next play Sara Errani of Italy, who beat 2008 semifinalist Zheng Jie 6-2, 6-1. In the late night match, defending champion Novak Djokovic reached the Australian Open quarterfinals for the fifth straight year with a 6-1, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 win over former No. 1-ranked Lleyton Hewitt. Djokovic, who is aiming to become only the fifth man in the Open era to win three consecutive majors after collecting the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles last year, was up two sets and a break before Hewitt won six straight games to force a fourth set. But after losing a set for the first time in the tournament, Djokovic regained his composure to ensure all of the top five men reached the quarterfinals. He will next play No. 5 David Ferrer, who had a 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 victory over Richard Gasquet of France. The loss for former U.S. Open and Wimbledon champion Hewitt ended his 16th campaign at the Australian Open and also meant there's no locals remaining in the men's or women's singles draws. Hewitt's best performance at Australian title remains his run to the final in 2005. Earlier, two-time runner-up Andy Murray was leading 6-1, 6-1, 1-0 when Mikhail Kukushkin retired from their fourth-round match with a left hip injury, giving Murray an easy path into the quarters. "It's obviously good for me, I get to conserve some energy," Murray said. "Tough for him, first time in the fourth-round of a Slam." Murray will next play Kei Nishikori, who had a 2-6, 6-2, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 win over sixth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the 2008 finalist. The 22-year-old Nishikori became the first Japanese man in the last eight at the Australian Open in 80 years, and only the second man from his country to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal since the Open Era started in 1968. Shuzo Matsuoka reached the 1995 Wimbledon quarterfinals. "Is feeling unbelievable. My first quarterfinal and beating Tsonga, makes me really happy," Nishikori said. "I hope it's big in Japan. A lot of people messaged me a couple of days ago about the round of 16 and now the quarterfinals. It's really exciting." Makarova, a 23-year-old Russian left-hander, was equally thrilled about her win over Williams. And considering she'd lost in the first round of the last six tournaments she'd played, in awe over who she beat. "Yeah, I'm surprised because she's a great player and it's really tough to play against her. But, I don't know, I just feeling so good and so focus. So I played my game, and that's it. I won against Serena. That's amazing." Makarova overcame plenty of Williams crowd support, many of whom weren't that familiar with the Russian. Oracene Price, Williams' mother, was in the players' box with her sunglasses on and a wide-brimmed hat. In the fourth game of the second set with Makarova serving, Williams netted an easy forehand return. She made an angry sound, and there was a bit of laughter in the crowd. Price just turned away, shaking her head. After Williams' fourth double-fault in the fifth game of the second set, which gave Makarova the game and a 3-2 lead -- Williams shouted "Oh my God." She looked ready to smash her racket, but in the end bounced it on the court and caught it on the rebound. The 13-time Grand Slam winner had only played two competitive matches since losing the U.S. Open final to Sam Stosur in September, and her light preparation was curtailed when she badly twisted her ankle as she won her second-round match at Brisbane earlier this month. For that reason, Williams wasn't about to beat herself up over Monday's loss. "Am I usually angry? I don't know. Crying? I don't cry. So I don't know what I usually project," she said. "I feel like I didn't play well today. I don't feel like I can't get better."

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Only three of John Fox’s 12 wins as Bears coach have been against NFC North opponents, while 12 of his 29 losses have come against divisional opponents. 

That’s a recipe for back-to-back-to-back last place finishes in the NFC North. And if the Bears can’t beat an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers team, why could it beat a Detroit Lions team that has a healthy franchise quarterback?

The positive end of that answer is the Bears do have wins over two playoff teams (Pittsburgh and Carolina) while six of their four losses have been by eight points or fewer. Sunday’s game will probably be close, again (if it’s not, and the Bears are on the losing end of it, it would raise some significant concerns about the state of Fox within the locker room). 

So if the game is decided by one possession or less, this could be the difference: Detroit has one of the best special teams units in the NFL, ranking second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, while the Bears are 28th by the same measure. 

Getting Sherrick McManis back this week should help solidify Jeff Rodgers’ special teams units, but Jamal Agnew has two punt return scores and is averaging 18.3 yards per return. 

“Tough guy — he’ll return inside and outside,” Rodgers said. “He’s got multiple longer returns against people this year. it’s not just, ‘I had a long return in Week 2 or Week 1,’ and kinda held onto that. he’s been productive in a lot of games. certainly a guy that we’ve gotta do a good job against.”

If the Bears don’t do a good job bottling up Agnew, though, he could be the reason why the game flips to Detroit — or, at least, why the Lions keep the Bears at arm’s length. 

Prediction: Lions 24, Bears 16