Nationals

Sloane Stephens moves up rankings, tops Querrey

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Sloane Stephens moves up rankings, tops Querrey

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Sloane Stephens didn't just achieve her best Grand Slam result by reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open - she's also one up on her good friend Sam Querrey.

Stephens and Querrey, who lost in the third round of men's singles, share a coach, David Nainkin. They've developed a good-natured rivalry about who's rising faster in the rankings.

With her run to the semifinals at Melbourne Park, Stephens will improve to No. 17 from No. 29 in the rankings next week, while Querrey is not expected to rise much higher than his current No. 22.

``Sam Querrey sent me a message and said, `You might be ahead of me on Monday, but in three weeks, I'm going to be ahead of you,''' the 19-year-old Stephens said after her straight-sets loss to No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals on Thursday. ``I have to keep working because I want to stay in front of him.''

The Americans haven't made a wager over who will be ranked higher by the end of the year - there's just pride at stake, Stephens said.

``Obviously egos are big,'' she said earlier this week. ``This is tennis, so somebody's going to win.''

Stephens was disappointed she didn't follow up her big win over 15-time major winner Serena Williams in the quarterfinals with a better match against Azarenka, but her overall performance at the tournament far exceeded her expectations at the start of the season.

``I'm obviously coming out of the Australian summer with amazing momentum, knowing I can pretty much hang in there with anybody and even beat some of the best players,'' she said. ``It's definitely a good feeling.''

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DOWN UNDER: It can't be a good feeling for David Ferrer: Another loss in a Grand Slam semifinal by the same humbling score.

Ferrer was defeated by top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open on Thursday 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. He lost by the same score to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of the French Open last year on his favored clay surface.

For all his success on the court - he won a tour-leading seven titles last year - the Spaniard hasn't been able to get past the semifinals at majors.

He lost in the semifinals of the 2012 and 2007 U.S. Open to Djokovic, and fell in the semifinals of the 2011 Australian Open to Andy Murray.

A clearly dejected Ferrer tried to explain how frustrating it feels to get so close to a Grand Slam final, only to be beaten each time by one of the so-called Big Four of men's tennis - Djokovic, Murray, Nadal and Roger Federer.

``It's difficult to do one final of a Grand Slam,'' the fifth-ranked Ferrer said. ``When I did the semifinal in Roland Garros, Australian Open, U.S. Open, it was a loss to the best three players, no?

``I am trying to do my best every match. But I know they are better than me. What can I do?''

Meanwhile, Djokovic was feeling so fresh after his easy win over Ferrer that he had time to make a cameo appearance during a legends doubles match later Thursday night.

The Serbian star posed as a doctor and pretended to perform CPR on retired French player Henri Leconte, much to the delight of the picture-snapping crowd.

Djokovic gave reporters his diagnosis during a later news conference: ``(Leconte) is definitely crazy. He needs long-term treatment.''

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LUCKY NO. 13: Mike Bryan can't pronounce the name of one of his opponents in the Australian Open doubles final on Saturday, but that doesn't mean he's not taking the competition seriously.

Identical twins Mike and Bob Bryan, the top seeds at Melbourne Park, advanced to their ninth Australian Open final with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 win over the Italian duo of Simon Bolelli and Fabio Fognini on Thursday.

The brothers will be trying to win a record 13th Grand Slam title, which will move them one ahead of the Australian greats John Newcombe and Tony Roche on the all-time Grand Slam doubles titles list.

The Bryans play Dutchmen Robin Haase and Igor Sijsling, who upset the third-seeded Spanish duo of Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez to reach their first Grand Slam final.

``It's the first time I've ever seen that guy,'' Bryan said, referring to Sijsling. ``I don't know how to pronounce his name. But they've played big doubles. They serve huge and rip groundstrokes.

``Hopefully they're nervous, but you can't count on it.''

Bryan said the doubles game has changed to such an extent in recent years, he and his brother have only faced one serve-and-volley player en route to the final. Most of the teams they've played have preferred to hit from the baseline.

``That's kind of the new era of doubles. You see guys serving and staying back,'' he said. ``You're going to see that over the (coming) years. When most of these doubles guys become extinct, you're going see just a bunch of crosscourt singles.''

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TEENAGE DREAM: Australian teenager Ashleigh Barty already knows how she'll spend part of the prize money she'll pocket for reaching the women's doubles final at the Australian Open.

``It will cover a few of the Tigers jerseys that I buy,'' she said, referring to her favorite Australian rules Australian Football League team, the Richmond Tigers. ``I have far too many at home.''

Barty may need to think a little bigger - if she and fellow Australian Casey Dellacqua win the final against the No. 1 team in the world, Italians Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, they'll take home $250,000 apiece. Not a bad payday for a 16-year-old.

Barty and Dellacqua, wild-card entrants into the doubles draw, are having an amazing run in Melbourne. They took out the No. 3 seeds, Lisa Raymond and Maria Kirilenko, in the second round, and followed up that win with three more straight-set victories.

Barty is the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Frenchwoman Tatiana Golovin won the mixed doubles at the 2004 French Open at the age of 16 with Richard Gasquet.

``Already this week for me has been such an achievement,'' Barty said. ``If we can go one step further, it would be incredible.''

The Italian duo will be tough to beat. Errani and Vinci won the French Open and U.S. Open doubles last year - and defeated Serena and Venus Williams in three tight sets in the quarterfinals this week.

``We're definitely the underdogs,'' Dellacqua said. ``I don't think many people would have thought we'd be in the final. To go out there and think we're going to beat the No. 1 players in the world, it's going to be a big task.''

Barty and Dellacqua were included in the Australian team named Thursday to play a Fed Cup match against the Czech Republic next month.

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Eric Thames appeared on the Korean 'Masked Singer,' because of course he did

Eric Thames appeared on the Korean 'Masked Singer,' because of course he did

Eric Thames is a fun-loving, weight-lifting, beard-growing, truck-driving, yoga-practicing, Avengers-obsessed potpourri of a man. Oh yeah, and he plays first base for the Washington Nationals.

There are few things that Thames can’t do. So it should come as no surprise that the left-handed slugger once emerged as a surprise contestant on the South Korean equivalent of “The Masked Singer” after spending three years in the Korea Baseball Organization.

Appearing on “The King of Mask Singer” last offseason, Thames busted out his rendition of Stevie Wonder's “Isn't She Lovely” before singing — in only slightly less-than-perfect Korean — the song “Americano” originally released by Korean duo 10cm.

He sat down with NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas for the Nationals Talk podcast and reflected on his moment in the spotlight.

“Preparing for that was definitely uncomfortable, to say the least,” Thames said. “I’m not afraid of being uncomfortable…but I had to go to a singing coach. He taught me different techniques about your posture, your breathing — like diaphragm breathing, I didn’t know what any of that was. But it’s definitely a unique experience.

“I was battling a K-pop guy who could belt notes like no other so I’m there just like I’m singing karaoke, [voice] cracking, but it was fun.”

The performance only added to Thames’ well-established Korean fame. He won MVP as a member of the KBO’s NC Dinos in 2015 after hitting 40 home runs, stealing 40 bases and winning the league batting title with a .381 average. His success overseas helped him land a three-year, $16 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers that stretched until this winter.

LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW ON THE NATIONALS TALK PODCAST

Thames now joins a Nationals roster that rode an exuberant clubhouse culture all the way to a World Series title. With Gerardo Parra, the face of that clubhouse personality, having departed for Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, there’s an opening for a player such as Thames to inject the energy into the clubhouse that it rallied around last season.

While Thames doesn’t expect to be singing his way into endearing himself to his teammates, he looks back on his performance as a fun experience.

“We recorded it and I had to wait probably like 25 days, so I couldn’t say anything. I had to keep it a secret,” Thames said. “I remember I flew with my buddy to London and we’re at the airport, getting on the shuttle, going to the hotel and he’s like, ‘Hey dude, the thing’s going to air in like 20 minutes,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, here we go.’ Sure enough it aired and my phone blew up. All my friends like, ‘Ahh, I didn’t know.’ It was cool.”

Even though Thames is someone who thrives in situations that make him uncomfortable, pulling off that mask and seeing the cheering audience around him was a moment he won’t soon forget.

“It was easier with the mask on,” Thames said. “It’s like singing in the dark. Nobody can see you, but when the mask is off it’s like all right, just let it all hang out there.”

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Public player spats leave MLB feeling similar to the NBA

Public player spats leave MLB feeling similar to the NBA

Baseball has long hunted for a better way into the headlines, some way to breakthrough and seem more hip or at least modestly up to date.

One of its digital arms created Cut4 almost a decade ago to spice up its social media brand. Lighter content, GIFs, campiness, anything but the rigid archaicness long associated with the game. Baseball wants to retain, but put to the back, the crowd who remembers Harmon Killebrew either through seeing him once upon a time or watching black-and-white Home Run Derby replays on ESPN decades ago. The league is desperate for a feel which resonates with the coming fan, not the graying one.

What Major League Baseball lacked, the NBA retained organically. Personality. Individual marketing. A crossover between apparel and personal brands so expansive, room existed for bit players to grow -- just ask Nick Young. Single players spoke their minds often, at times in front of the camera, others on social media. The freedom of expression led to another free: free headlines. From Kevin Durant’s burner account to Joel Embiid’s perpetual Twitter smack, the NBA’s marketing ran itself.

The league was about chatter, and blips and combative public words, which baseball had never been about. In an attempt to modernize, Major League Baseball thrusted out a pre-2019 season marketing campaign based on “letting the kids play.” A central figure in the main commercial was young Houston star Alex Bregman, who leaned into his mic to bust up the generic statement making going on around him. “We’re going to win this World Series and the next one,” Bregman said with a smile. Seven months after the commercial’s release, Bregman apologized for carrying his bat to first base in the World Series.

Baseball’s offseason scandal did do one thing: it produced headlines which led to the league finally drawing from its inner NBA. On camera, from coast to coast, players called out other players. Cody Bellinger sniffed at the Astros, Nick Markakis threatened them, Howie Kendrick flatly condemned them. “If you cheat, you cheat,” he said.

Houston’s Carlos Correa pivoted to take many of the complainers to task. He began his personal pushback on MLB Network, of all places, before expanding to a discussion with local Houston writers. He contended many players didn’t know what they were talking about. Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki was among his targets.

Since then, baseball has been able to continue with the NBA’s blueprint. The outside-of-the-field griping leads to intrigue about actual play (massive player movement in that league also helps in a way baseball will never reach). In this case, when the Astros took the field, what would happen?

They were booed. Hard. It was predictable. The first game at their shared facility in West Palm Beach included vocal disdain mostly for players fans likely don’t know. But, the lineup of minor-leaguers didn’t matter that first day. The concern was to target the big, orange H in all its forms. Baseballs began to hit Astros players -- seven in five games. Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard petulantly made Houston leadoff man George Springer wait among boos before throwing the first pitch.

This is easy for fans. Nothing is subjective. There is no wonder or counter argument like those which existed in the steroid era. The Astros are the convicted cheaters, the enemy, plain as day. 

Which helps. Not the path, no one would recommend that. However, a non-New York enemy -- especially one filled with talent in a large market -- helps MLB to what it can’t produce on its own because the games or season are too long. A clear-cut bad guy will be rolling town to town in 2020, giving both fans and opposition opportunity to express their thoughts. 

Social media will buzz. Individuals will have another round of fresh questions each time the Astros touchdown at a new airport. The cheaters are here, what do you think? And out of this black cloud will come further comments, verbal spats which were previously reserved for the clubhouse or group text chains. They are in the open now, which leaves MLB feeling similar to its most dialed-in three-letter brethren, which was a goal all along. Though the league would have preferred a different path to get there.

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