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Australian Open final: Victoria Azarenka vs Li Na

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Australian Open final: Victoria Azarenka vs Li Na

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) It was back in 2011 that Li Na remembers first feeling the benefits of being a big tennis star.

She had just won her first Grand Slam title at the French Open and was headed back home when she saw her face on TV at the airport. Then she got upgraded to business class.

``They came up to me and said, `We know you. You just won the tournament.' So (they) moved me to business class,'' she said. ``I was (thinking), `Oh, this is not so bad.'''

Back in those days, Li also remembers feeling a lot more nervous about her big matches. Before her big win at Roland Garros, she was the Australian Open runner-up, becoming the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final.

On Saturday, the 30-year-old Li returns to the Australian Open final, taking on defending champion and No. 1-ranked Victoria Azarenka.

Now seeded-sixth, Li says she's more accustomed to the fame that comes with being one of China's biggest sports stars. She feels more grounded for this final and less anxious.

``Last time was more exciting, (more) nervous because it was my first time to be in a final,'' Li said Friday. ``But I think this time (I'm) more calmed down, more cool.''

Both women say their goal is to keep cool and not let their emotions get the best of them on the big day.

In that respect, Li enters the final with an advantage.

She is emotionally and physically fresher than Azarenka, who said she needed to recover from her stressful semifinal.

Azarenka advanced in straight sets over American teenager Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4 in their Thursday semifinal. But needed six match points in a victory that ended with the top-ranked player defending herself against accusations of gamesmanship by leaving the court for a medical timeout.

Serving for the match at 5-3, the 23-year-old Azarenka wasted five match points, lost her serve - then asked for a timeout. She sat with a trainer and left the court during a nine-minute medical break. She returned to close out the match by breaking Stephens' serve.

But she raised suspicion during an interview on center court immediately after the match.

``Well, I almost did the choke of the year,'' a relieved Azarenka told the crowd. ``I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I realized I'm one step away from the final and nerves got into me for sure.''

Azarenka, who has a history of on-court tantrums, didn't help herself in a television interview after the match.

``I couldn't breathe. I had chest pains,'' she said, when asked why she left the court. ``It was like I was getting a heart attack.''

After surviving her semifinal, Azarenka had a post-match news conference where she said she was dealing with a rib injury that made it hard to breathe. She said her earlier comments were a misunderstanding and denied that she took a medical timeout to compose herself.

Australian Open officials said the tournament doctor reported that Azarenka had left knee and rib injuries.

``Right now, I just need to calm down with the whole situation (and) make sure that my body's right,'' Azarenka said.

Li had a much more routine victory in the semifinals.

She needed just 93 minutes in Thursday's other semifinal to power past No. 2 Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-2. She then charmed an adoring crowd by cracking jokes during an on-court interview. She kidded about her husband's snoring, her attempts to lose weight and the tough training by her new coach Carlos Rodriguez - before turning to the stands to thank him.

``You don't need to push me anymore. I will push myself,'' she told Rodriguez, the former coach for seven-time Grand Slam winner Justine Henin.

``I don't know what happened today,'' Li said later. ``I just came to the court feeling like, `OK, just do it!''

Li is in top physical form and is making a comeback to the championship weekend at a Grand Slam. After becoming the first Chinese tennis player to win at a major in 2011, she hit a slump. But she has seen rapid results in the six months since she hired Rodriguez, who seems to have a knack for guiding players past their nerves.

Li charged into the semifinals at the Australian Open without dropping a set. After beating No. 4-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals she secured herself a return to the top five in the rankings.

If the reaction at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday was any indication, the crowd favorite for the final will be Li - who won over a lot of fans in her match and perhaps even more as a result of Azarenka's situation.

Australian crowds love their defending champions, but dislike any whiff of bad sportsmanship. Accusations against Azarenka immediately surged through social media platforms.

By reaching the final, Azarenka retains her No. 1 ranking, but has said that's not her focus.

``I'm really hungry to defend my title,'' she said. ``That is my first goal ... to win the tournament.''

If she masters her jitters and comes into the final focused, Li will have a tough fight.

Azarenka leads 5-4 in career matches, including the last four times they've played. However, Li has a better record at Grand Slams, having beaten Azarenka at the 2011 Australian Open before reaching the final that year. Li also beat the Belarusian later that year at the French Open before winning the title.

``What should I worry about?'' Li said when asked if she was nervous for the match. ``I was working so hard in winter training. I think now everything is coming back to me.''

On the day of the final, here's her plan: ``I come to the court, take my racket and enjoy the tennis.''

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In addition to being an NFL player, Bryce Love can now call himself a Stanford graduate

In addition to being an NFL player, Bryce Love can now call himself a Stanford graduate

Bryce Love hopes he'll have the opportunity to carry many footballs in his NFL career. But this past weekend, the running back picked up something that'll be just as, if not more, valuable than the attempts he'll be getting on Sundays.

How's a college diploma from Stanford sound? Pretty solid, right?

Oh, how about a college diploma from Stanford in human biology? Yeah, probably something worth hanging up on the ol' fridge, huh?

Well, that very hard-earned and impressive degree is what Love is now in possession of:

Drafted by the Redskins in late-April and walking across the stage at Stanford in mid-June, Love is doing well for himself recently. He passed up the chance to enter the draft early to ensure he graduated, and now he has.

His college GPA isn't known, but once you find out his high school GPA was 4.5 (that's apparently possible) and add that to the fact that he was able to finish up school out west while also churning up yards for the Cardinal, you can imagine it was very, very good. And if his yards-per-carry average as a pro matches or exceeds it, then the Redskins will be thrilled.

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Nationals introduce first round pick Jackson Rutledge, who is ready to work

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Nationals introduce first round pick Jackson Rutledge, who is ready to work

WASHINGTON -- Jackson Rutledge may still be years away from the majors, but as the Nationals' 2019 first round pick toured the team's ballpark for the first time on Monday, he sure looked the part as a big leaguer.

At 6-foot-8, Rutledge towers over everyone currently on the Nationals' roster. He's got prototypical pitcher size with a fastball that reaches triple digits.

Like any pitcher recently drafted, no matter the round, there is a good chance Nationals fans will not hear Rutledge's name again for quite some time, if they hear it again at all.

In the previous eight years, the team used their first pick in the draft on a pitcher six times. Only two of them - Lucas Giolito and Erick Fedde - have pitched in a Nationals uniform, and only Fedde is currently on their roster.

Rutledge, 20, will begin his journey with the Gulf Coast League Nationals. He heads there on Friday, hoping it will not be long before he is back in Washington.

"This is my first time in D.C.," Rutledge said. "Amazing stadium."

Rutledge signed his first contract with the Nationals on Monday and passed a physical in the morning. In the afternoon, he walked around the clubhouse and on the field during batting practice, introducing himself to manager Davey Martinez and players who could be his future teammates.

Rutledge has said in various interviews since being drafted earlier this month that he looks forward to playing with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, the Nationals' three ace starters. 

This was his first glimpse at them in-person.

"Meeting all the big league guys was really cool," he said. "I just want to be one of those guys that has that success."

If there was any impression Rutledge left on Monday, beyond his height, it was his eagerness to learn. He cited several of his mentors over the years, former big leaguers like Andy Benes who coached him in summer ball and Woody Williams, an assistant coach at San Jacinto Community College. He mentioned Tom Arrington, head coach at San Jacinto, and his attention to detail.

Rutledge even had praise for Ross Detwiler, a former Nationals pitcher whom they took in the first round of the 2007 MLB Draft. He explained how Detwiler taught him a changeup grip during an offseason workout that he has continued to use.

Those are the people, he says, who helped him arrive at this unexpected place in his life as a first-round draft pick.

"If you asked me a year and a half ago where I would be, I probably wouldn't say the first round. It worked out really well because of how hard I worked," Rutledge said.

His college numbers were certainly impressive. Rutledge held a 0.87 ERA with 134 strikeouts in 13 starts. As a freshman at Arkansas before transferring, he posted a 3.45 ERA in 12 starts.

Rutledge is now looking forward to taking the next steps in his development. He said working on his curveball and changeup will be the focus while he's in the GCL. He wants to add weight and muscle to prepare for next year, his first full pro season. 

Assuming he does someday return to Washington as a big league pitcher, Rutledge said to expect a guy who likes to work fast but without a lot of emotion.

"When things are going well, I really feel in control of the game. I feel like I'm setting the game at my own pace and hitters feel uncomfortable because of that," he said. 

"I'm not a guy that's going to get up and start yelling and give energy like that, I'm more of a consistent kind of flat body language sort of guy."

Nationals fans will hope to get to know him better someday. For now, it's down to the minors to learn the ropes as a prospect.

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