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Azarenka beats Lisicki, reaches Brisbane quarters

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Azarenka beats Lisicki, reaches Brisbane quarters

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) Top-ranked Victoria Azarenka opened her 2013 season with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Germany's Sabine Lisicki on Wednesday to join No. 3 Serena Williams and fourth-seeded Angelique Kerber in the Brisbane International quarterfinals.

Azarenka, who won here in 2009 without dropping a set, got the better of 37th-ranked Lisicki in a match that had nine breaks of serve.

The Belarusian won her first major at the Australian Open last year during a 26-match winning streak to start the season and spent most of 2012 atop the women's rankings.

She said her focus ahead of her first major title defense was more about attacking than defending.

``I actually don't really look at defending anything. I'm just looking to win,'' Azarenka said. ``I'm going to have the same mindset for as long as I'm playing.''

In earlier second-round matches, Angelique Kerber recovered from 5-2 down in the deciding tiebreaker to beat Puerto Rican qualifier Monica Puig, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7) and Sloane Stephens had a 6-3, 6-4 win over Sweden's Sofia Arvidsson to set up a quarterfinal against fellow American Williams.

Azarenka said Lisicki, who was serving at up to 121 mph, proved a tough match and a good measure of her preparations for the Australian Open, which starts on Jan. 14.

She said Lisicki was ``serving some bombs,'' although the German player was only getting half of her first serves into play and had five double-faults. Lisicki mixed 36 winners with 36 unforced errors, trying to push Azarenka around the court.

``I had a tough challenge at the beginning,'' she said. ``It's always good to see where you're at, right at the start.''

She'll next play Kazakh qualifier Ksenia Pervak, who has ousted former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and Urszula Radwanska in matches decided by third-set tiebreakers.

``I hope she's tired,'' Azarenka joked. ``She's a young girl with a lot of potential. She's going to be really motivated. I'm looking forward to the challenge.''

Five of the top eight seeded players had already been eliminated midway through the second round.

Kerber narrowly avoided that fate, coming back from 4-1 down in the third set and clawing her way back in a tiebreaker when Puig was two points from the biggest victory of her career.

The 19-year-old Puig, ranked No. 124, buried a swinging volley into the bottom of the net at 5-2 in the tiebreaker and it changed the momentum of the match.

``For sure it was a surprise how she played. I didn't know her before, but, yeah, I'm sure that she'll be coming very soon into the top 50,'' Kerber said of Puig. ``I have a lot of confidence right now that I won again (in a) very close match.''

Stephens had a convincing win over Arvidsson and next faces a childhood hero.

``Obviously she's been a really great influence in my tennis year career. I'm excited to play her and get on the court with her. I think it'll be fun,'' the 19-year-old Stephens said.

Williams said she has been following Stephens' career and was ``a fan'' of her young Fed Cup teammate's style.

In her first tournament back since being sidelined by an abdominal injury following the U.S. Open, Stephens isn't awed by the prospect of taking on the 15-time Grand Slam winner.

``Obviously I always was like, `Oh, my God. I love her to death. She's amazing, whatever,''' Stephens recalled of her earliest meetings with Williams. ``Now she's like an actual person and I'm like, `Oh, hi. How is it going?' She's not like a hero anymore. She's just a friend.

``Even if I go out there and lose, just bomb it, I don't win a game, at least if I'm able to focus on myself and do what's right for me then it's not a loss.''

In men's second-round matches, third-seeded Gilles Simon of France beat Colombia's Alejandro Falla 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5) and No. 5 Kei Nishikori of Japan had a 6-3, 6-3 win over Tommy Robredo of Spain. Sixth-seeded Florian Mayer lost 6-4, 6-2 to 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis.

In the night match, fourth-seeded Alexandr Dolgopolov was leading 6-2, 4-1 when Jarkko Nieminen of Finland retired due to a migraine.

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5 takeaways from the neutral arbitrator’s ruling on Tom Wilson

5 takeaways from the neutral arbitrator’s ruling on Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson finally made his season debut on Tuesday after his 20-game suspension was reduced to 14 games. The suspension was reduced by neutral arbitrator Shyam Das, who issued his decision Tuesday in a 42-page ruling.

Wilson was originally suspended for a hit he delivered to St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist.

Just as Bettman did in the first appeal, Das sheds light on several fascinating aspects of the process and various arguments used. Here are my five biggest takeaways from Tuesday’s ruling.

Think Sundqvist hit shows that Wilson is a dirty player? No one else seems to

Wilson has developed a bit of a reputation among some fans for being a dirty player and many have used this incident as evidence of that. Behind closed doors, however, it seems like everyone is in agreement that Wilson was making a hockey play and just missed.

Das wrote, “The NHLPA stresses that Wilson had no intent to injure or target Sundqvist's head, as [head of the Department of Player Safety George Parros] acknowledged. It is agreed that he was making a hockey play. His hit, even assuming it was a violation of Rule 48 -- which the NHLPA disputes -- was off ‘by inches,’ as recognized by the DPS.”

It used to be fairly common for a player who cut across the middle in the offensive zone to get blown up by the opposition. It’s not that way anymore, but there’s nobody seems to question that Wilson was simply back checking and going after the puck carrier and not simply head-hunting.

Careful what you put in an email

In a footnote, Das detailed how the NHLPA tried to argue both Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly attempted to influence the DPS’s decision of whether or not to suspend Wilson.

The NHLPA cites an email Daly sent to Parros at 5:05 p.m. on September 30, 2018 stating: "Looks like a big one. The Emergency Assistance Fund [which receives forfeited salary of penalized players] is going to be happy." Immediately prior to sending this email, Daly had been copied on five emails sent to Parros by other DPS personnel all stating that in their opinion Wilson had violated Rule 48. The NHLPA also cites Parros' testimony that the day before the DPS hearing on this incident he was at an unrelated meeting at which the Commissioner said something to the effect: "You're going to do the right thing or Do the right thing.

Conspiracy theorists are going to run away with this as proof that the NHL is somehow out to get the Caps, but I think it is important to note that the neutral arbitrator—the key word being neutral—did not buy the NHLPA’s argument. Das wrote, “The evidence as a whole, including Parros’ testimony, does not establish that the DPS was improperly influenced by the cited comments of League officials.”

Patrick Kaleta mattered a lota

Who is Patrick Kaleta? Kaleta is former player with an extensive history of supplementary discipline. His name appears 34 times in Das’ ruling so you know he must be important.

The NHLPA argued Kaleta was the “most appropriate comparison” to Wilson because he was suspended three times and fined once over the course of 94 games and with less total ice time. Despite his extensive history, the DPS issued a suspension of only 10 games in 2013 for a hit he delivered to the head of Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson. That 10-game suspension was reached by doubling his prior suspension of five games.

The DPS made a point of saying that because Wilson was facing discipline for the fourth time in 105 games, his history was “unprecedented.” The reason why the DPS felt that way was because it drew a distinction Wilson was suspended all four times whereas Kaleta was fined once in his four violations during the comparable period and it was not taking the fine into account. Once you add that in, it is easy to see the argument as to why the length of Wilson’s suspension seems extreme in comparison.

How the suspension went from 20 to 14

How the DPS reached 20 games for the suspension was detailed in Bettman’s ruling, but here’s a quick refresher. Parros took Wilson’s last suspension of three games and doubled it to account for the weight of a playoff game (6), tripled that number because Wilson is a repeat offender (18) and added two more games because the hit caused an injury (20).

The sticking point for Das was tripling the last suspension which Das said there was no precedent of the league doing in the past.

“I conclude that Wilson's suspension should be reduced to 14 games,” Das wrote. “I have arrived at this length by treating his most recent prior 3 playoff game suspension as the equivalent of 6 regular season games, as Parros did, doubling that based on all relevant circumstances to 12 games -- which certainly constitutes more severe punishment consistent with the CBA -- and adding 2 games, as Parros did, based on the injury to Sundqvist.”

The change was that instead of multiplying the past suspension by three, Das though it appropriate to double it instead just as the league did with Kaleta.

This wasn’t a win for Wilson

Getting Wilson back was good news for the Caps and it saves him $378,048.78 that he would have otherwise had to forfeit, but let’s be clear, this was not a win for Wilson.

A 14-game suspension is still a significant suspension and it would have felt massive had the league originally given him 14 games on Oct. 3. It just doesn’t seem that way now because the original suspension was for 20 games.

The neutral arbitrator ruled that Wilson’s hit was illegal and worthy of a significant suspension. The only issue was basically that he didn’t like the NHL’s math. Das’ ruling should in no way be considered vindication for Wilson. Everything that has been said about Wilson in the wake of the suspension remains true. He still has to change the way he plays because the next suspension will be greater. Even if the NHL is beholden to the double modifier Das determined to reach 14 games, the best case scenario for the next suspension will be 24 to 28 games depending on if the DPS takes into account the extra two games tacked on for injury or not. That’s the best case scenario. Neither he nor the team can afford that.

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3 things to watch for improved Wizards vs. Cavs

3 things to watch for improved Wizards vs. Cavs

The Washington Wizards still have John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. The Cleveland Cavaliers no longer employ LeBron James. That makes Wednesday’s first meeting of the season between the Eastern Conference foes curious. The radical change for the visitors also requires a preview. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington. 

Here are three things to watch...

Sustaining the surge

Monday’s 117-109 victory over the Orlando Magic extended the Wizards’ winning streak to a season-high two. Don't knock the modest uptick after a 2-9 start. John Wall’s stat line took a big leap over the last three games: 24.0 points, 10.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 45.5 percent on 3-pointers. Beyond the numbers, the point guard appears to have knocked off the remaining rust physically. We’re used to his aggressive end-to-end pushes, but now Wall is firing up the court immediately after makes or misses, helping Washington quickly enter its offensive sets. Another strong outing from the five-time All-Star could propel the Wizards to their first three-game winning streak since Feb. 10-22.

Bench support

Starters Wall, Beal, Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris had solid games against the Magic, but it was the Wizards’ second unit playing above previous season norms. All five reserves finished with a plus-minus of plus-8 or better. Jeff Green continued his sizzling shooting, sinking 4 of 5 from beyond the arc en route to 18 points. The 6-foot-9 forward is 9 of 13 from beyond the arc overall during the last four games, and 21 of 28 overall. Backcourt partners Austin Rivers and Tomas Satoransky, slow to develop chemistry this season, showed increased comfort during the winning streak. Washington needs more from the pair to help keep minutes for Wall and Beal at reasonable levels. That Green and Rivers, in particular, have provided steady help has contributed to Porter sitting out the fourth quarter in three consecutive games.

Cleveland doesn’t rock

From four consecutive NBA Finals appearances to the NBA’s worst record (2-11, tied with Phoenix). Yeah, the Cavaliers miss LeBron James just a little. They also are down Kevin Love (toe surgery), leaving Jordan Clarkson (15.2) and Rodney Hood (12.9) as Cleveland’s top scorers. That’s not ideal. The Cavaliers are 27th in scoring (103.3) while giving up 113.1 points per game, which is better than Washington’s league-worst 118.5. Rookie point guard Collin Sexton, the No. 8 overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft, is filling in for the injured George Hill. Sexton is averaging 17.0 points over the last three games.

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