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Love him or hate him, Nick Kyrgios appears to have a new perspective with his Citi Open title

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Love him or hate him, Nick Kyrgios appears to have a new perspective with his Citi Open title

WASHINGTON – Nick Kyrgios is the most polarizing player in tennis. That’s not an opinion, nor a question, nor an exaggeration. He’s not your prototypical tennis player and he is perfectly okay with that.

This week he played in Washington D.C.’s Citi Open in his first action of the hard court season. Immediately it was noticeable that there was a fresh vibe and excitement around Kyrgios. Not only was it his confidence he gained on the path to a title, but it was also a persona that has not been seen before from the 24-year-old. Dare say it appears to come from new maturity and a better understanding of his role within the sport. 

He's at a point in his career where he wants to go down a new path and already he's begun "cleaning up some bad habits."

On the court, he hits shots in-between his legs, lacks effort in certain parts of matches, among other antics. Off the court, he is not afraid to let his opinion be known to others nor does he utilize a coach. As a result, everyone has an opinion of the Aussie, good or bad.

This week in D.C. was no different. Every match he played had at least one ‘tweener’ shot through his legs. Underarm serves were aplenty. There was even your common viral Kyrgios moment when he chucked his water bottle at the umpire stand, then explained to the umpire that it slipped out of his hand. He also delivered a new pair of shoes to one of his opponents while playing.

During the championship match against world No. 9 Daniil Medvedev it was at full display. Tweener shots, underhanded serves, behind the back shots, almost all of which he won. It helped he didn’t need to break Medvedev. He didn’t have to worry too much about back pain that crept up in the first set. He won every service game and then took both tiebreaks, 7-6(6), 7-6(4).

"We all know how Nick can play when he wants to, and this week I think he wanted to play," Medvedev said in the championship ceremony.

His talent is not new, with his championship he is 5-1 against top-10 opponents in 2019. He also is the only player in tennis history to beat each of ‘The Big Three’ – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – in their first meetings. Earlier in the week, Tsitsipas considered him one of the most underrated players in the world.

A difference though – at least for this week – is with how Kyrgios is now handling himself. Even he said this week he felt like a "traditional tennis player". Every time he plays with less effort, he says it’s now to throw off his opponents, as he did in the second set of his semifinal match against Stefanos Tsitsipas. His tweener shots on lobs are done not because he is lazy but because he believes they’re completed at a better percentage than a back-facing return. 

“It’s his way of feeling comfortable when he’s on the court. He’s entertaining people,” Tsitsipas said after his loss to Kyrgios in the semifinals. “I believe we need people like him in the game, otherwise everything becomes too serious.”

At Rock Creek Park this past week he was one of the star attractions. He played in seven matches, six singles and one doubles, with six of those matches played on the premier court of the tournament. He’s getting the sought-after night sessions and hosting kid’s days. Spots that are not custom for an un-seeded player not from the United States. Every time we saw Kyrgios it was either a sellout or close to it.  

“A lot of people can relate to me. I have a massive following as well. I’m playing for a lot of people out there, not just myself,” Kyrgios said earlier in the week. “Like it or not, I’m a massive role model. I’m doing all these kid’s days at every single tournament. They’re picking me for a reason. I know deep down there’s a lot of kids that look up to me and I need to be better.”  

Better, in referring to his past behavior that has given him his notoriety.

But this week he’s pulled back the curtain a little bit, in addition to mentioning he needs to be better. He says he’s not directly challenging the tennis establishment that many believe he is. He claims he’s not intentionally being disrespectful. He admits he has made bad decisions in his past and even encouraged another young player to avoid the mistakes he’s made.

He goes about tennis his own way and that’s different than what many fans are accustomed to. 

"I've just been working really hard on and off the court to try and be better as a person and as a tennis player," Kyrios said after winning the championship. "This has been one of the best weeks in my life, not only on the court but just, in general, I feel like I've made major strides and I'm just going to take it one day at a time and hopefully I can continue on this on this new path."

“I was a very overweight kid. Got told by coaches, teachers that I wasn’t going to be very good at what I chose to do, which was tennis, and I think people can just relate to people telling you you can’t do anything, and I feel like I’m proving a lot of people wrong,” Kyrgios said when asked about who’s he’s inspiring. “I’ve beaten every single one of the best tennis players in the world doing it my way and I’m never going to stop doing that.”

Entering the tournament, much of the excitement surrounding Kyrgios was his doubles pairing with the sixth-ranked player in the world in Tsitsipas. The unique combination put together by tournament owner Mark Ein was part of his plan to highlight doubles matches for the event. 

No one was concerned about Kyrgios on the singles side of the draw. He was an unseeded player in a draw filled with up-and-comers looking to grab a notable title. Turns out there should have been more attention on Kyrgios as he filled stadiums and marched to the tournament Final.

“I always knew that I could produce good tennis, but the problem with me was not being able to do it every day and every week. I would go missing for a month and then show up to a tournament and maybe play well,” Kyrgios told reporters after his semifinal win over Tsitsipas, the No. 1 seed in the event. “I think it came from within that I just wanted to start being better as a tennis player and as a person.” 

"I'm trying not to change myself, you know, playing ping-pong with kids before I play, you know, I don't want to lose sight of who I am. I want to continue to have fun on court and be the entertainer I am. But it's a day-by-day process," Kyrgios said post-title.

Becoming a champion, again, at a 500-level event is a great start. It is his second title of 2019, sixth of his career and only his third at this level (two steps down from a major). Great timing for him with the U.S. Open right around the corner. The result puts him in position to become a seeded player at the year’s last major. His win will vault him to No. 27 in the world.

His talent is undeniable, as exhibited in the Citi Open. Many forget that he quickly rose to a No. 13 world ranking back in 2016 with a slew of titles. There have just always been obstacles when it comes to his consistency, most of them self-inflicted. 

Success is not going to come down to his abilities on the court; it will come from his mental fortitude. Kyrgios even openly admitted that he has a long way to go even after winning the Citi Open title and this is just a step. 

At long last, though, it appears Kyrgios has a new perspective on how he plays tennis which benefits everyone.  

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Denny Hamlin wins another Daytona 500 for Joe Gibbs; Ryan Newman hospitalized

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Denny Hamlin wins another Daytona 500 for Joe Gibbs; Ryan Newman hospitalized

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ryan Newman flipped across the finish line, his Ford planted upside down and on fire, a grim reminder of a sport steeped in danger that has stretched nearly two decades without a fatality.

At the finish line, Denny Hamlin made history with a second straight Daytona 500 victory in an overtime photo finish over Ryan Blaney, a celebration that quickly became muted as drivers awaited an update on Newman's condition.

"I think we take for granted sometimes how safe the cars are," Hamlin said. "But number one, we are praying for Ryan."

Roughly two hours after the crash, NASCAR read a statement from Roush Fenway Racing that said Newman is in "serious condition, but doctors have indicated his injuries are not life-threatening."

During the long wait for an update, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to express his concern. Trump a day earlier attended the race as the grand marshal, gave the command for drivers to start their engines and made a ceremonial pace lap around Daytona International Speedway before rain washed out the race.

"Praying for Ryan Newman, a great and brave @NASCAR driver! #PrayingForRyan," Trump tweeted. Newman was one of several NASCAR drivers who attended a 2016 rally for Trump in Georgia when he was a presidential candidate.

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, acknowledged the excruciating delay for information on Newman.

"To hear some positive news tonight is a relief," Rushbrook said. "He is so respected for being a great competitor by everyone in the sport."

NASCAR scrapped the traditional victory lane party for Hamlin's third Daytona 500 victory, rocked by Newman's accident 19 years after Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt was the last driver killed in a NASCAR Cup Series race.

Newman had surged into the lead on the final lap when Blaney's bumper caught the back of his Ford and sent Newman hard right into the wall. His car flipped, rolled, was hit on the driver's side by another car, and finally skidded across the finish line in flames (VIDEO - watch with caution).

It took several minutes for his car to be rolled back onto its wheels. Medical personnel used solid black barriers to block the view as the 2008 Daytona 500 winner was placed in a waiting ambulance and taken to a hospital. The damage to his Mustang was extensive -- it appeared the entire roll cage designed to protect his head had caved -- and officials would not allow his team near the accident site.

Drivers were stricken with concern, including a rattled Corey LaJoie, the driver who hit Newman's car as it was flipping.

"Dang I hope Newman is ok," he posted on Twitter. "That is worst case scenerio and I had nowhere to go but (into) smoke."

Hamlin is the first driver since Sterling Marlin in 1995 to win consecutive Daytona 500's, but his celebration in victory lane was subdued.

Hamlin said he was unaware of Newman's situation when he initially began his celebration. It wasn't until Fox Sports told him it would not interview him on the frontstretch after his burnouts that Hamlin learned the accident was bad.

"It's a weird balance of excitement and happiness for yourself, but someone's health and their family is bigger than any win in any sport," he said. "We are just hoping for the best."

Team owner Joe Gibbs apologized after the race for the winning team celebration.

"We didn't know until victory lane," Gibbs said. "I know that for a lot of us, participating in sports and being in things where there are some risks, in a way, that's what they get excited about. Racing, we know what can happen, we just dream it doesn't happen. We are all just praying now for the outcome on this."

Runner-up Blaney said the way the final lap shook out, with Newman surging ahead of Hamlin, that Blaney got a push from Hamlin that locked him in behind Newman in a move of brand alliance for Ford.

"We pushed Newman there to the lead and then we got a push from the 11 ... I was committed to just pushing him to the win and having a Ford win it and got the bumpers hooked up wrong," he said.

Hamlin had eight Ford drivers lined up behind him as the leader on the second overtime shootout without a single fellow Toyota driver in the vicinity to help him. It allowed Newman to get past him for the lead, but the bumping in the pack led to Newman's hard turn into the wall, followed by multiple rolls and a long skid across the finish line.

Hamlin's win last year was a 1-2-3 sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing and kicked off a yearlong company celebration in which Gibbs drivers won a record 19 races and the Cup championship. Now his third Daytona 500 win puts him alongside six Hall of Fame drivers as winners of three or more Daytona 500s. He tied Dale Jarrett -- who gave JGR its first Daytona 500 win in 1993 -- Jeff Gordon and Bobby Allison. Hamlin trails Cale Yarborough's four wins and the record seven by Richard Petty.

This victory came after just the second rain postponement in 62 years, a visit from Trump, a pair of red flag stoppages and two overtimes. The 0.014 margin of victory was the second closest in race history, and Hamlin's win over Martin Truex Jr. in 2016 was the closest finish in race history.

That margin of victory was 0.01 seconds. The win in "The Great American Race" is the third for Toyota, all won by Hamlin. Gibbs has four Daytona 500 victories as an owner.

"I just feel like I'm a student to the game. I never stop learning and trying to figure out where I need to put myself at the right time," Hamlin said. "It doesn't always work. We've defied odds here in the last eight years or so in the Daytona 500, but just trust my instincts, and so far they've been good for me."

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NASCAR Countdown: 1 Final Time For The G.O.A.T.

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NASCAR Countdown: 1 Final Time For The G.O.A.T.

NBC Sports Washington is counting down big NASCAR moments leading up to the Daytona 500. Be sure to check out our other coverage below.

We’ve hit on a lot in this countdown. From the best Daytona 500 finishes, to silly season moves, to Hall of Famers and everything in between.

But with one day remaining until the Great American Race, this day is reserved for one specific driver who happens to be hanging up his full-time driving helmet at the end of the season.

The greatest NASCAR driver of all-time: Jimmie Johnson.

When Jeff Gordon told Rick Hendrick to hire Jimmie Johnson, it’s safe to say he didn’t expect the then mid-20s California kid to surpass his success in the Cup Series. But right off the bat, he showed signs he had it.

It took Johnson 10 races to reach Victory Lane, albeit at his home track of Auto Club Speedway. And then three races later, his first of a NASCAR record 11 wins at Dover International Speedway. The baby-faced California kid was no longer a dirt motorbike racer on two-wheels. He was a full-fledged stock car driver.

He finished fifth in the championship standings his rookie year, but didn’t even win the Rookie of the Year award thanks to Ryan Newman’s stellar campaign. Three more wins in 2003 and a second-place finish in the standings, a whopping eight checkered flags in 2004 and another runner-up finish. He had arrived. He was “big time.” The championships were coming.

After four more wins and another fifth-place finish in 2005, the dominance began. He and crew chief Chad Knaus. 2006: a championship...and 2007, 2008...2009 and 2010. Fives titles in a row, eclipsing Cale Yarborough’s then-record of three consecutive titles.

NASCAR doesn’t get as much attention as the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB. But any sports fan can appreciate dominance when they see it. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick didn’t win five straight. Neither did Shaq and Kobe. It’s the most impressive feat by a team in the modern era of sports. 

After two years of failing to win it all, he returned to championship form, winning his sixth in 2013. NASCAR then again changed the championship format to go to a winner-take-all, championship four style format. And after another two-year break, Johnson did it again.

His record-tying seventh title came in 2016, using his patented passing skills to get by Kyle Larson on a late-race restart to claim his first career win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track that had crowned him champion six times, but had never given him the “race winner” title.

His quest to defend the title in 2017 was a tough one. Although he won three times, he finished 10th in the standings, only the third time in his career he’d finished 10th or worse

In recent years, his performance has been lackluster to put it lightly. No wins for the first time ever in 2018, and a missed playoff appearance for the first time ever in 2019. Johnson has gone almost two calendar years without winning a points-paying race.

Sure, age has something to do with it. But his team (Hendrick Motorsports) hasn’t kept up with the times, either. They, along with Chevrolet as a manufacturer, have fallen behind Toyota and Ford in recent years. Performance across the board has suffered.

This past offseason, Johnson announced 2020 would be his final year racing full-time in the Cup Series. Some people blamed his performance as a factor, some blamed age.

I’d chalk it up to a little bit of both. But I’m going to watch Johnson’s 2020 season through the lens of appreciation. It’s not often that you get to live through an era where the best to ever do it competes. Right in front of your eyes.

That’s what we’ve gotten to see from Jimmie Johnson.

Here's the bottom line: NASCAR literally changed the generation of stock cars the field ran three separate times and changed the playoff field three times along the way.

Regardless, Johnson and Knaus continued winning no matter.

After winning his seventh title, the hashtag “#Chasing8” was a rallying cry for Johnson supporters on social media. But after his announcement, he decided to change that hashtag to something a little more sentimental.

“#OneFinalTime”

So when Johnson likely competes in his last Daytona 500, and races at Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dover, leads his final laps, perhaps wins his final race, takes his final checkered flag, the list goes on: appreciate it. Because there’ll never be another Jimmie Johnson.

He’s one of a kind.

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