Nationals

Williams loses in quarters; Azarenka into semis

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Williams loses in quarters; Azarenka into semis

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Serena Williams' dominating run at the majors ended in a painful loss to American teenager Sloane Stephens.

After the biggest victory of her life, the 19-year-old Stephens is headed to the semifinals of the Australian Open.

Williams hurt her back in the eighth game of the second set, slowing down her serve, restricting her movement and causing her obvious pain.

Stephens kept her composure, blocking out the injury issue on the opposite side of the net, and rallied for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory on Wednesday - by far the most significant in her seven Grand Slams.

The gravity of it didn't hit Stephens until she was warming down, and even then the victory had an unreal feeling.

``I was stretching, and I was like, `I'm in the semis of a Grand Slam.' I was like, `Whoa. It wasn't as hard as I thought.' But it's pretty cool,'' she said. ``To be in the semis of a Grand Slam is definitely I say a good accomplishment. A lot of hard work.''

It was Williams' first loss since Aug. 17, ending a run of 20 consecutive wins.

The 15-time major winner hadn't lost a match at a Grand Slam tournament since the French Open, where her first-round exit sparked her resurgence in the second half of 2012 that included titles at Wimbledon, the London Olympics, the U.S. Open and the WTA Championship.

After winning her first Grand Slam quarterfinal, Stephens next plays defending champion Victoria Azarenka.

In the men's draw, U.S. Open champion Andy Murray moved into the semifinals with a 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 win over unseeded Jeremy Chardy of France.

The No. 29-seeded Stephens had been given barely a chance of beating Williams, who lost only four matches in 2012 and was in contention to regain the No. 1 ranking at the age of 31.

Williams' latest winning streak included a straight-sets win over Stephens at the Brisbane International earlier this month.

And Stephens wasn't even sure that she could beat Williams, until she woke up Wednesday.

``When I got up, I was like, `Look, Dude, like, you can do this.' Like, `Go out and play and do your best,'' she said.

It wasn't until after losing the first set and being broken in the first game of the second that she really convinced herself she could.

``I was like, `Hmm, this is not the way you want it to happen. But you just fight and just get every ball back, run every ball down, and just get a lot of balls in play, I think you'll be OK.'

``From then on I got aggressive, started coming to the net more, and just got a lot more comfortable.''

She started hitting winners, cutting down on the errors, and pushing the injured Williams around the court.

Williams walked around the net to congratulate Stephens, who then clapped her hand on her racket and waved to the crowd, a look of disbelief on her face.

She then went to her tennis bag, pulled out her phone and started checking for any text messages from her mother.

``I was hoping she had texted me right away. I thought maybe she was texting me during the match,'' Stephens said. ``I'm sure my grandparents are like freaking out.''

Stephens has said she had a photo of Williams up in her room when she was a child, and had long admired the Williams sisters.

``This is so crazy. Oh my goodness,'' Stephens said, wiping away tears in her post-match TV interview. ``I think I'll put a poster of myself (up) now.''

For her part, Williams said the bad back was just another problem to contend with at a Grand Slam event that had been ``absolutely'' her worst for injuries. It started when she injured her ankle in the first round.

``I'm almost relieved that it's over because there's only so much I felt I could do,'' she said. ``It's been a little difficult. I've been thrown a lot of (curve) balls these two weeks.''

Williams was up a set and a break before Stephens settled in. In the eighth game of the second set, Williams was chasing a drop shot to the net when she appeared to hurt her back. She needed a medical timeout after the set, and then slowly started to regain the speed in her serve.

She said her back ``just locked up'' on her.

``I couldn't really rotate after that,'' she said. ``It was a little painful, but it's OK.''

There were times when she barely concealed the pain, and had to bend over or stretch out her back. Yet the thought of retiring from the match only crossed her mind ``for a nanosecond.''

It didn't mean she wasn't frustrated. Williams smashed her racket into the court in the third set, breaking the frame and then flinging it toward the chairs on the side of the court. She looked to the sky occasionally and yelled at herself.

The racket abuse cost her $1,500 in fines.

Azarenka, with her most famous fan sitting in the crowd wearing a shirt reminding her to keep calm, overcame some early jitters to beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-5, 6-1 in the earlier quarterfinal at Rod Laver Arena.

After dropping serve in a long fourth game that went to deuce 10 times, Azarenka recovered to dominate the rest of the match against Kuznetsova, a two-time major winner who was floating dangerously in the draw with a No. 75 ranking as she recovers from a knee injury.

Azarenka's American rapper friend, Redfoo, returned from a concert in Malaysia to attend Wednesday's quarterfinal.

Wearing a red sleeveless T-shirt that read ``Keep Calm and Bring Out the Bottles,'' the name of his next single, Redfoo stood, clapped and yelled ``Come on, Vika!'' during the tight first set.

Asked if it helped to have her No. 1 fan wearing a keep calm logo, Azarenka said ``I was looking more at the part that says `Bring out the bottles.'''

Of her game, she added, ``I'm just glad I could produce my good tennis when it was needed.''

Williams' loss was a boost for Azarenka, who lost all five head-to-heads against the American in 2012 and is 1-11 in their career meetings.

In the men's quarterfinals, 17-time major winner Roger Federer was playing No. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a night match for a spot in the semifinals against Murray.

The 25-year-old Murray had his service broken for only the second time while serving for the match. But he broke back immediately to clinch the quarterfinal victory.

``I'll watch a little bit but I won't watch the whole match,'' Murray said of the night quarterfinal, adding that he hoped ``Roger and Jo play 4 to 5 hours if possible!''

Defending champion Novak Djokovic plays No. 4-seeded David Ferrer in the other semifinal.

On the other half of the women's draw, Maria Sharapova has conceded only nine games in five matches - a record in Australia - en route to a semifinal against 2011 French Open champion Li Na.

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3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

Nationals fans are teetering on the edge. 

On one hand, the Nats are 3.5 games out of first place after a 10-week span full of injuries and underperformance. The team just acquired All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera, and their 19-year-old left fielder looks like an All-Star already. 

On the other hand, doom is imminent. The Monstars stole Bryce Harper's abilities at some point over the last three weeks, Steven Strasburg can't stay healthy, and the offense is pushing everyone's patience to the limit. 

So who's overperforming? Who's underperforming? Who's out there just trying their very best? LET'S LIST. 

Three Up

1. Juan Soto

Our large young son Juan continues to impress. He's now hitting .325/.411/.602 with a 1.013 OPS in 95 plate appearances over 25 games. That means we're mercifully starting to leave the 'fluky start' narrative behind. He's been the best hitter on the Nationals by a wide margain since he got called up - although that's perhaps more of an indicitment on the rest of the lineup than it is on Soto. Still, in less than a month he's probably earned the starting left field spot for the rest of the summer. Not bad. 

2. Justin Miller

Miller is 31, on his third team in four years, and owns a career ERA north of 4.50. Despite all of this, Miller's been the best reliever in baseball since coming up for the Nats. Of relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched (we hear your sample size comment and are not going to acknolwdge it), no one has a better FIP than Miller (0.64). He's striking out over half of the batters he sees and has yet to walk a single person this year. All the elite relief pitchers are already at 30-40 innings pitched, so Miller has a while to go before these stats mean a whole lot. If he stays even 75 percent as good as he's started, the Nats' bullpen looks scary. 

3. Michael A. Taylor

Have yourself a week or two, Michael A.! The centerfielder is slashing .500/.556/.583 over the last 14 days, the first of many "Maybe He Put It Together?!" runs we'll see from him this year. He also has six stolen bases during that span, more than anyone else on the team. His plate discipline has been better over the last two weeks, with a BB% a shade over 11 percent - only behind Juan Soto for highest on the team. Juan Soto, man. 

Three Down

1. Bryce Harper

A couple things here. We'll start with the admission that Bryce Harper is obviously not having a superb year. We've already briefly touched on why looking at only his batting average is a lazy way of judging his season, and we stand by that. With that said - Harper's had a bad season. The last month has been particularly painful. There's no way of dressing up a .189/.278/.400 slashline over the last 30 days. Still, his contact has been as great as his luck terrible - there's a positive regression coming, we promise. 

2. Pedro Severino 

And you think Harper's been slumping?? Over the same 30 days, Severino has hit .098/.179/.115 with a .294 OPS. He's essentially daring the Nats to put together a trade package for JT Realmuto at this point. He has six hits over his last 68 plate appearances and five of them are singles. 

3. Shawn Kelley

Kelley owns a 6.09 FIP and a 4.32 ERA over the last month (10 games, 8.1 innings pitched). He's walking close to nine percent of the hitters he's faced during that time. He has a 12.5 HR/FB over the last month. With the trade for Kelvin Herrera and the sudden emergence of Justin Miller, Kelley's role going forward isn't quite clear anymore. 

MORE NATS NEWS:

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Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

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USA TODAY Sports

Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

The Washington Wizards hold the 15th and 44th overall picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. Here is the latest in our series on draft prospects projected to be picked around where the Wizards will select...

2018 NBA Draft Wizards Prospect Preview: Jerome Robinson

School: Boston College
Position: Shooting guard
Age: 21
Height: 6-5
Weight: 188
Wingspan: 6-7
Max vertical: N/A

2017/18 stats: 20.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.1 bpg, 48.5 FG%, 40.9 3PT% (2.3 3PT/5.7 3PA), 83.0 FT%
Player comparison: Danny Green
Projections: NBC Sports Washington 29th, NBADraft.net 16th, Bleacher Report 19th, Sports Illustrated 17th

5 things to know:

*A three-year player at BC, Robinson developed into a big-time scorer before making the leap to the NBA. He averaged 18.7 points as a sophomore and then 20.7 points as a junior while improving his shooting percentages across the board. He went from 42.3 percent from the field as a sophomore to 48.5 in 2017-18.

*Robinson turned himself into an excellent three-point shooter. After shooting just 33.3 percent as a sophomore, he got that up to 40.9 percent as a junior and on 5.7 attempts per game. That trajectory bodes well for Robinson's chances at the next level.

*He has a quick release on his jumper, giving him the ability to be effective on catch-and-shoot plays off screens. Robinson could develop into a reliable scorer who doesn't need the ball in his hands as a primary focus of the offense. He also showed the ability to throw down some powerful dunks and finish with creativity at the rim. He didn't record a vertical leap at the NBA Combine, but playing above and around the rim didn't appear to be a problem in college.

*Though it didn't show in his last season at Boston College, Robinson was adept at forcing turnovers in his first two years. He averaged 1.6 steals per game across his freshman and sophomore seasons and 16 times in his career had three steals or more in a game.

*Questions for Robinson would include his versatility and speed. Some draft evaluators wonder if he will be able to get separation off the dribble at the NBA level. Also, he put up decent rebounding and assists numbers in college but didn't exactly stand out in either category.

Fit with Wizards: Robinson would give the Wizards depth at the shooting guard position and they need that. He could help Bradley Beal pare down his minutes and offer a scoring punch off the Wizards' bench. The Wizards could use a reliable shooter to help space the floor for Kelly Oubre, Jr. and others in the second unit.

The problems with Robinson's fit would be his lack of positional versatility and what appears to be a relatively low ceiling. He's not the freak athlete that some of his counterparts are at shooting guard. If the Wizards are choosing between Robinson and guys like Zhaire Smith and Lonnie Walker IV, they could view the latter two as more enticing because of their potential. Robinson would represent a safer pick while others could pay off big-time and have a greater impact on the franchise in the long-term.

Best highlight video:

More draft prospect profiles:

Kevin Knox, PF, Kentucky

Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State

Robert Williams, PF/C, Texas A&M

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky

Zhaire Smith, SG, Texas Tech

Landry Shamet, PG/SG, Wichita State

Gary Trent, Jr., SG, Duke

Lonnie Walker IV, SG, Miami

Anfernee Simons, PG/SG, IMG Academy

Khyri Thomas, SG, Creighton

Chandler Hutchison, SG/SF, Boise State

Kevin Huerter, SG, Maryland

Mitchell Robinson, C, Western Kentucky

Troy Brown, SG/SF, Oregon

Donte DiVincenzo, SG, Villanova

Moritz Wagner, PF/C, Michigan

Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA

Keita Bates-Diop, SF, Ohio State

For more on the NBA Draft, check out our latest episode of the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

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