Nationals

Victoria Azarenka vs Li Na in final in Australia

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Victoria Azarenka vs Li Na in final in Australia

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Victoria Azarenka will have 48 hours to calm her nerves, rest her body and move past a center-court controversy before she returns to defend her Australian Open title.

Her opponent is an emotionally and physically fresher Li Na, the 2011 French Open champion.

Both women used the word ``hungry'' to describe how much they want to win their second Grand Slam title. Both say their goal is to keep cool and not let their emotions get the best of them on the big day.

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

The 30-year-old Li is in top physical form and making a Grand Slam comeback. After becoming the first Chinese tennis player to win at a major in 2011, she hit a slump. But she hired Justine Henin's former coach six months ago and the partnership has produced rapid results.

Li charged into the semifinals at the Australian Open without dropping a set. As a result, she will return to the top five after beating No. 4-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals.

She needed just 93 minutes on Thursday 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 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, who helped Henin win seven majors and seems to have a knack for guiding players past their nerves.

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

A similar slogan carried over into Azarenka's semifinal, where her rap star friend Redfoo sat in the stands cheering her on in a T-shirt that read: ``Let's Do It.''

The confident and big-hitting Azarenka also advanced in straight sets, beating American teenager Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4. But the victory was packed with drama and 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 called 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 her interview on center court.

``Well, I almost did the choke of the year,'' a relieved Azarenka said to 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.

``I love to play here and I just couldn't lose, that's why I was so upset.''

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.

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.

If the reaction at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday was any indication, the crowd favorite for the final is 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 Belarussian 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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3 things to watch when the .500 Nationals head to Colorado

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3 things to watch when the .500 Nationals head to Colorado

The Nationals face the Rockies at Coors Field for the first half of this work week. Here are three things to watch for:

  1. Can the Nationals stay above .500? Stephen Strasburg’s impressive start along with Ryan Zimmerman’s two homers and two RBI kept Washington from being swept by the lowly Marlins.

  2. Who will produce with Anthony Rendon out? While the Nats 3B was sidelined with an elbow injury after being hit by a pitch in Saturday’s outing against the Marlins, Howie Kendrick started in his place. Kendrick went 1-for-3 vs Miami with one RBI and one strikeout. In terms of replacing Rendon’s hitting prowess, Victor Robles has started a streak of his own. The youngster is hot on a seven game hit streak, including a bunt over the infield Sunday.

  3. Will the Nationals ever sure up their end game? Yesterday’s ninth inning was on the brink of disaster. Kyle Barraclough allowed back-to-back walks, then Sean Doolittle loaded the bases. Luckily for the Nats, crisis averted.

Download the MyTeams app (https://www.nbcsports.com/washington/myteams-nbc-sports ) for even more Nationals content, and check out the latest episode of the Racing Presidents podcast below.

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NHL Playoffs 2019 Roundup: Blues eliminate Jets, Stars and Capitals pull ahead 3-2

NHL Playoffs 2019 Roundup: Blues eliminate Jets, Stars and Capitals pull ahead 3-2

Friday saw the Toronto Maple Leafs pull ahead 3-2 and the Colorado Avalanche eliminate the favored Calgary Flames. Saturday provided another elimination game and two teams pulled ahead 3-2 in their series.

Here are the results from Saturday.

St. Louis Blues eliminate Winnipeg Jets with 3-2 win

The Blues return to the second round of the playoffs after they were eliminated in the first round last season.

The Blues rally started 23 seconds into the game, when Jaden Schwartz put home a Brayden Schenn rebound.

Schwartz followed with two more goals, completing the hat trick. It's the second natural hat trick in a playoff series clinching game since Geoff Courtnall in 1992.

The Blues await the winner of the Nashville-Dallas series.

Dallas Stars pull ahead of Nashville Predators in 5-3 victory

The Stars were able to steal one from the Predators at Bridgestone Arena thanks to Jason Dickinson and Alexander Radulov's two goal performances.

Tyler Seguin added a goal of his own to pull the Stars ahead 4-2 at the end of the second period, and Ben Bishop recorded 30 saves.

The Stars have a chance to close the series at home Monday night.

Washington Capitals take upperhand on Carolina Hurricanes with 6-0 shutout

After dropping Game 4 in Carolina 2-1, the Caps exploded for six goals against the Hurricanes in a 6-0 win.

Nicklas Backstrom scored the opening two goals. He leads the Capitals in playoff goals with five and had a four point night.

The Caps also got production from their bottom six with Brett Connolly's goal and Nic Dowd's converted penalty shot. It's the first penalty shot a Caps player has successfully made in the playoffs.

Braden Holtby's shutout gave him seven in the playoffs, surpassing Olaf Kolzig's six for the franchise lead. The Caps have a chance to win the series in Carolina Monday night.

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