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Chinese interest key to Australian Open future

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Chinese interest key to Australian Open future

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) When Li Na saw all the Chinese flags and heard the cheers of ``Jia You,'' or ``Let's Go'' in Mandarin, during her Australian Open final against Victoria Azarenka, she thought she might have been in Beijing.

``I can hear a lot of Chinese fans, yeah,'' she said after losing to Azarenka in three sets Saturday night. ``I was, oh, looks like China Open.''

Li was joking, but Australian Open organizers would be pleased to hear the comparison. The tournament has long billed itself as the ``Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific,'' and in recent years, it has stepped up its efforts to court increasingly affluent and tennis-mad fans in China.

With Li making the women's final for the second time in three years, this has been easy to do.

Attracting TV viewers was the first priority. When Li, China's top player, reached her first Grand Slam final at Melbourne Park in 2011, losing to Kim Clijsters, the tournament drew 120 million viewers in China.

Seeing numbers like these, Tennis Australia signed a three-year deal with China Central Television and the Shanghai Media Group to broadcast the tournament throughout China, with a guaranteed minimum number of hours of coverage.

The deal was in place in time for last year's tournament, which attracted 115 million viewers - without Li or any other Chinese player doing well.

``It'll be very interesting to see what this year's number is,'' said Steve Ayles, Tennis Australia's commercial director. ``We're certainly awaiting that with some anticipation.''

The tournament has also tried to build up its brand in China by taking the Australian Open trophy on a tour of the country, creating a Mandarin version of the Australian Open website and setting up an Australian Open account on China's version of Twitter, Sina weibo.

Organizers also set up a tournament for aspiring players from the Asia-Pacific region to compete for a wild card into the main draw.

The first edition of the playoff was held in China in October, and the wild cards went to two players from China - Zhang Yuxuan, who competed in the women's tournament, and Wu Di, who became the first man from mainland China to play in the main draw.

More tour operators in China are offering package tours to Melbourne, as well. Ayles said these tennis-themed trips increased by 82 percent this year.

``What it means is when a Chinese player plays particularly well, because we have this all in place, it just heightens level of awareness of the Australian Open,'' Ayles said. ``Right across the board, when we have a player like Li Na play well and get to a final, obviously it helps underpin our strategy in China.''

Part of the reason for an outreach program like this is sheer protectionism. Several years ago, Tennis Australia feared it could lose its Grand Slam to a booming Asian city like Shanghai, eager to increase its profile on the global stage.

``Obviously if your business model is underpinned on 22 million people, it's quite a challenge for you,'' Ayles said, referring to the population of Australia.

``There's no question being part of a bigger region, that's where the opportunities for growth comes,'' he added. ``This is not 2-to-5-year strategy; it's 20-, 40-year strategy.''

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Isaiah Thomas wants to make it clear that Marcus Smart flops

Isaiah Thomas wants to make it clear that Marcus Smart flops

When you know, you know.

Washington Wizards starting point guard Isaiah Thomas gave his take on former teammate Marcus Smart's reputation for flopping. Spoilers: he flops.

Thomas, who is returning to Boston on Wednesday for the first time as a starter, was teammates with Smart during his run with the Celtics from 2014-17. He didn't hold back from interrupting reporters to make sure everyone knows that Smart flops. (See the entire sequence play out in the video above.)

Despite being familiar with Smart, don't expect Thomas to know everything about how the Celtics will prepare for the Wizards. Thomas pointed out that only two of his former teammates are still with the team.

His history with Boston means a lot to Thomas, but his only focus on Wednesday will be earning the victory.

"The love is genuine between me and the city," Thomas said. "Hopefully we can just win the game. That's the most important." 

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Lamar Jackson’s play this season has begun to make some analysts and fans backtrack 

Lamar Jackson’s play this season has begun to make some analysts and fans backtrack 

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson is starting to make people reconsider what they think of him. 

After the Ravens’ 49-13 win over the Bengals on Sunday, the rest of the NFL is starting to take notice about Lamar Jackson’s status in the NFL. Especially considering his spin move through the Bengals defense.

Hall of Fame NFL general manager Bill Polian recently admitted that he was wrong when he said that Jackson should be an NFL wide receiver during his draft process in 2018.

“I was wrong, because I used the old, traditional quarterback standard with him, which is clearly why John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome were more prescient than I was,” Polian told USA TODAY Sports. 

Jackson is currently building an MVP case for himself and is on-pace for over 30 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards of total offense. 

It’s a nice change of pace for the 22-year-old quarterback in his second year as a pro. Jackson had to face heavy criticism after he left Louisville for a variety of reasons headed into the draft. Even after he took over as the Ravens quarterback, those evaluations persisted. 

“We always knew what he was about,” Ravens center Matt Skura said. “We always knew his ability to make plays and all that stuff. I think it’s just people right now seeing it on a much larger scale and it’s just getting the attention now.”

At this point, however, it’s clear that not only is Jackson a quarterback, he might even be the MVP of the league.

Of the five quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the 2018 Draft, only four are starting and just two have led their teams to a winning record. Jackson leads all of his draft counterparts in total yards and total touchdowns. 

But as anyone in the Ravens’ locker room will say, the accolades don’t concern Jackson — only the record does.

“I think he’s more concerned with winning than anything,” Orlando Brown Jr. said. “As individuals, we’ve all got people to prove wrong and things that we used to put a chip on our shoulder. At the end of the day, I know he’s more concerned with winning more than anything.”

Still, it’s noteworthy that it only took Jackson a complete season of starts, through two partial seasons, to begin the backtracking across the NFL landscape.

“If you watch ESPN or you watch TV, it’s going to come up no matter what,” Skura said. “Even on your Instagram feed it’s going to come up. I think for a lot of us, just in one ear and out the other as far as people pumping us up. You’ve kind of got to stay level-headed and ride the rollercoaster, so to say.”

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